NEWARK -- A state appeals panel ruled yesterday that New Jersey's Constitution does not require the recognition of same-sex marriage.
The 2-to-1 decision rejected the efforts of seven same-sex couples to marry, although the case is expected to go to the state Supreme Court.
The ruling said legislators will have to change laws before same-sex couples can marry in New Jersey.
''However, absent legislative action, there is no basis for construing the New Jersey Constitution to compel the State to authorize marriages between members of the same sex," Appellate Judge Stephen Skillman wrote for the majority.
In dissent, Appellate Judge Donald G. Collester said that if marriage is defined strictly as a heterosexual union, then couples are denied the right to marry the person of their choice, and so have no real right to marry.
The third panel member, Appellate Judge Anthony J. Parrillo, wrote a concurring opinion, underscoring his belief that elected officials, not judges, should make the call on gay marriage.
''It is, therefore, a proper role for the Legislature to weigh the societal costs against the societal benefits flowing from a profound change in the public meaning of marriage," Parrillo said.
New Jersey contended that it had addressed the concerns of gay couples through a domestic partnership law that went into effect in 2004. That law offers same-sex couples various rights, including making medical decisions for each other, and tax benefits.
Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, saw yesterday's ruling as a partial victory.
''The dissent was strong, cogent, and even a little blistering," he said. ''We believe we're going up to the Supreme Court in very good shape, particularly with public opinion on our side."
Marilyn Maneely and Diane Marini, together for 14 years, are one of the seven couples who brought the suit. Their quest for the same benefits enjoyed by straight couples became more urgent when Maneely was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
''I don't get any of her Social Security," Marini said. ''I don't get any of these things we've been living for."