(Updates with reaction)
By Jon Hurdle
TRENTON, N.J., Jan 7 (Reuters) - New Jersey’s state Senate defeated a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday, a move that likely stalls the proposal in the legislature but puts it back in the hands of the courts.
The Senate, after an afternoon of debate, voted 20 to 14 against the bill. Backers had hoped to get it approved and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, a supporter, who leaves office on Jan. 19.
Incoming Republican Governor Chris Christie had said he would veto the measure. Now, with the Senate defeat, any such proposal may likely lie dormant in the legislature as long as Christie holds office.
“This is an example of how our country’s majority knows that we should not have to change the rules for a minority of people as long as we have protected their rights through civil unions,” said Joseph McMullen, a member of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, who welcomed the Senate vote.
New Jersey has a same-sex civil union law designed to give gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. Gay-marriage supporters say, however, that civil unions are inadequate.
“Children deserve the rights of natural parents, and they should not be denied them because of some people’s sexual desires,” McMullen added.
Garden State Equality, the leading advocacy group for gay marriage in New Jersey, condemned the vote, saying the Senate “defaulted on its constitutional obligation” to provide equal protection to same-sex couples.
Gay-marriage supporters said they will take the issue back to the state courts.
New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples have equal rights under the law and backed civil unions but stopped short of endorsing gay marriage. Instead, the court said the marriage issue should be decided by the legislature.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat and chief sponsor of the failed bill, said he was sure it would be a “slam dunk” in favor of gay marriage should the issue again go before the state Supreme Court.
“I‘m certain that we will win that,” he said.
Political observers have said Christie’s victory over Corzine, a liberal Democrat, in November made some lawmakers wary of supporting the controversial gay marriage bill.
Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have legalized same sex marriage. Another 40 states have specific laws banning it.