New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that gay couples have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, in a decision that could pave the way for same-sex marriages in the state.
The ruling stated that preventing such unions was unconstitutional and gives the state legislature six months to decide whether to amend the current marriage laws or create a new framework for same-sex unions.
Gay rights activists welcomed the ruling as a victory, while traditionalists said the legislature was being held hostage to radical activists.
"Denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee" of the Constitution, the court said in its ruling.
It said that while it did not find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage existed in the state, same-sex couples did not enjoy the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
"The unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state Constitution" it added.
"The legislature must either amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples or create a parallel statutory structure. The name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same-sex couples, whether marriage or some other term, is a matter left to the democratic process," it added.
While all seven judges agreed that the lack of rights enjoyed by same-sex couples was unconstitutional, four recommended that lawmakers deal with the issue, while three had recommended gay marriages be approved directly.
Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, a gay rights law firm that represented the plaintiffs described the outcome as an exciting decision.
"It's an incredible move forward ... We're hoping the legislature will allow same-sex couples to marry," he said, adding that polls suggested the state was ready to adopt such changes.
"It definitely is a move forward because at a minimum same sex couples in New Jersey are going to be provided equal rights and benefits, whether they are going to be provided marriage or not is something we'll see over the next six months," he said.
"The drama moves to the legislature," he said, accusing the court of "passing the buck a little" in its decision.
Matt Daniels, president of the traditionalist Alliance for Marriage condemned the decision.
"This marks the second state -- after Vermont -- where radical activist groups have convinced state court judges to hold a gun to the head of the legislature," he said in a statement.
"Most Americans believe that gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose. But they don't believe they have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society," Daniels said.