By Dave Warner
TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - A U.S. gay rights legal group on Wednesday asked a court to force New Jersey to allow same sex couples to marry, seizing the moment days after neighboring New York made same-sex marriage legal.
Lambda Legal is seeking an injunction at Mercer County Superior Court that would bar the state from denying marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
By seeking action through the courts, the group is avoiding the legislature, which approved civil unions for gay couples in 2006 but failed to pass full marriage rights when the issue came up last year.
When New York's legislature passed gay marriage on Friday, supporters said they hoped it would convince other states to do the same.
"The constitutional guarantee of equality under the law does not stop midway through the Lincoln Tunnel," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda, referring to a tunnel beneath the Hudson River that links the two states.
Lambda and the seven couples listed as plaintiffs also face opposition from Governor Chris Christie, who said on Sunday he supported the current civil union law in New Jersey, adding, "I am not a fan of same-sex marriage."
"I believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. That's my view, and that'll be the view of our state because I wouldn't sign a bill ... like the one that was in New York," Christie, a rising star in the national Republican Party, said on NBC television's "Meet the Press."
Lambda Legal has sought to force gay marriage rights through the courts before, suing in 2002. As a result, the state's Supreme Court forced the state legislature to address the issue, and in 2006 it approved a civil union law.
"Do you know how different that is, when you can't use the word marriage?" plaintiff Karen Nicholson-McFadden, 47, who has been in a relationship 21 years, told a news conference. "Words matter. Marriage is a word to define families."
Another plaintiff, Erica Bradshaw, 36, said most people were confused about the meaning of a civil union.
Lambda argues that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples violated the U.S. constitutional right to equal protection for all citizens.
"Singling out lesbians and gay men and their children, barring them from marriage and shunting them aside to something lesser, unfamiliar, inferior, means the government is causing, triggering, fueling the inequality the Supreme Court said the Constitution does not allow," Gorenberg said.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)