Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage as promised on Friday, asking lawmakers instead to appoint an advocate for same-sex couples under the state's existing civil union law.
Christie, a supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and often mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate, had pledged to veto the measure for weeks, saying voters should settle the matter through a referendum.
As Christie vetoed the bill, lawmakers in Maryland debated a similar bill to legalize gay marriage and were expected to vote later Friday.
Already a contentious social issue, gay marriage legislation has gained even more prominence ahead of November's presidential elections, with advocates framing it as a civil rights issue and opponents saying marriage should be reserved for unions between a man and a woman.
The New Jersey governor asked lawmakers to create an ombudsman for civil unions of same-sex couples who would "carry on New Jersey's strong tradition of tolerance and fairness."
"The ombudsman will be charged with increasing awareness of the law regarding civil unions, will provide a clear point of contact for those who have questions or concerns and will be required to report any evidence of the law being violated. In this way, we can ensure equal treatment under the law," Christie said in a statement.
Gay marriage advocates in New Jersey now face a difficult battle. The state Assembly passed legislation legalizing same-sex nuptials on Thursday by a vote of 42 to 33, which affirmed an earlier Senate vote.
But Democrats do not currently appear to have enough votes to override a New Jersey veto with a two-thirds majority, though they have until the end of 2013 to try.
New Jersey's Senate would need 27 votes, or three more than voted in favor of the bill on Monday, to override a veto. The Assembly would need to find another 12 votes to reach the required 54.
The issue could be settled by voters if put to a referendum; no U.S. state has ever approved same sex marriage in a referendum.
"When we look back in the annals of history, unfortunately, the governor will see that he was on the wrong side of justice," Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, said in a statement. "All the couples disappointed by his action today should take solace in the fact that we are not giving up this fight."
In Maryland, during nearly two hours of often-impassioned debate earlier on Friday, supporters of the "Civil Marriage Protection Act" turned back a handful of amendments offered by opponents to delay or derail it.
The House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the Maryland General Assembly, prepared to vote later Friday on whether to advance the bill to the state Senate, which passed a comparable measure a year ago.
Passage of the bill in the House, where it stalled last year, was by no means certain, although several delegates took the move by the Democratic leadership to hold the vote on Friday as a sign they had wrangled enough votes.
The bill needs the support of 71 delegates to pass the 141-member chamber.
Delegate Michael Smigiel, a Republican representing counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore and an opponent of the bill, said: "It will pass the House and go to the Senate now."
Friday's vote will help determine whether Maryland is close to joining six states that today are able to perform same-sex weddings: New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Iowa.
In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law on Monday legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, but it will not take effect until at least June. Opponents are working to gather signatures for a ballot initiative in November that would block the legislation.
(Reporting by Alice Popovici and Dave Warner; Writing by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Daniel Trotta)