By Ellen Wulfhorst
(Reuters) - Activists will focus efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in four U.S. states this year and next, hoping to capitalize on political momentum following Supreme Court victories for gay rights, the Freedom to Marry advocacy group said on Tuesday.
The group is targeting Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey, where legislative measures to legalize same-sex marriage have failed, and Oregon, where there is a drive to put a gay marriage initiative on the ballot in November.
While the Supreme Court justices stopped short of declaring a nationwide right to same-sex marriage, it ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal.
"It's obviously a very exciting time in our movement and in our campaign," said Evan Wolfson, founder and head of Freedom to Marry. "We have tremendous momentum from the wins that we secured at the ballot last year, the three states that we've already won this year and of course the Supreme Court rulings."
Thirteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage. Among them, Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island legalized gay marriage this year.
Opponents of same-sex marriage called the Freedom to Marry's four-state strategy overly optimistic.
"They're hugely overplaying their hand," said Thomas Peters, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage.
"These are states where gay marriage advocates have been saying for months, if not years, that gay marriage is inevitable and they've made no progress."
In Illinois, a bill to recognize same-sex marriage stalled in the state legislature this year but could be revived when lawmakers return in the fall.
New Jersey is shaping up as a battleground as Democrat lawmakers seek enough votes to overturn Republican Governor Chris Christie's veto of same-sex marriage legislation last year.
Freedom to Marry also said it is targeting at least six more states to pass same-sex marriage in 2015 and 2016 that may include Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)