By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey's highest court agreed on Friday to decide whether the state must allow gay marriage, setting up a final showdown in a lengthy legal battle over whether the state's civil union law is enough to protect the rights of same-sex couples.
The announcement came two weeks after a state judge ordered that same-sex marriages must be allowed starting October 21.
At the request of Governor Chris Christie's administration, which is appealing the ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court said it would hear arguments in early January. The gay couples who challenged the state's civil union law consented to the move as a way of getting a final determination as quickly as possible.
The decision, which bypasses an intermediary appeals court, accelerates a legal battle that has moved rapidly since the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
The state court also said it would consider whether to stay the ruling allowing gay marriage while the appeal is pending. A decision on that issue appears likely sometime next week.
"Every day that goes by is a day that people are further damaged, sometimes permanently, because they don't have access to basic fairness under the law," said Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The New Jersey attorney general's office did not immediately comment.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that gay couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples but left the precise mechanism up to the legislature, which created civil unions as a way of fulfilling that mandate.
When the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act in June, ruling that it unfairly denied married same-sex couples a raft of federal benefits, the New Jersey plaintiffs filed court papers arguing that civil unions no longer provided equal treatment.
Two weeks ago, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in Trenton agreed, ruling that only marriage could ensure equal benefits. It was the first time a court ruled in favor of gay marriage as a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.
Meanwhile, gay marriage advocates are pursuing a parallel effort in New Jersey's Democrat-controlled legislature, which passed gay marriage last year only to see Christie veto the bill.
The legislature has until the end of the year to override his veto, and gay rights groups have been pressing lawmakers to gather enough votes.
Christie, considered a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, opposes gay marriage and has said the issue should be decided by a voter referendum.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)