A bill to legalize gay marriage cleared the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, paving the way for a vote Thursday before the full Senate.
Monday night's committee vote, after about seven hours of debate, was 7-6.
Proponents want the bill passed quickly so Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine has said he'd sign it before leaving office.
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"I am confident that through this process the marriage equality issue will be recognized for what it truly is -- a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law," Corzine said in a statement Monday.
Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who takes office Jan. 19, has said he'd veto the bill.
New Jersey does recognize civil unions and Monday's testimony focused on whether the domestic partnerships are working.
Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said the civil unions law has overwhelmingly lived up to its goals. Any problems, he said, aren't with the law but with the way it's enforced.
"The failure has been upon the state of New Jersey, which has failed to educate the public, failed to educate the institutions," he said.
More than 300 people said they wanted to testify, and scores of them did. Among them were social conservatives who argued that "redefining" marriage would weaken one of society's most important institutions and that the public should vote on such an important issue.
Lawmakers also heard from clergy on both sides of the issue, from gay-marriage opponents who talked about the physiology of sex, from gay couples who said they've faced discrimination and from Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a civil rights icon, who told lawmakers they would be "standing for right and on the right side of history" if they allow gay marriage.
Children of gay parents pleaded their case, too.
"It doesn't bother me to tell kids my parents are gay," said 10-year-old Kasey Nicholson-McFadden, who lives with his two moms in Aberdeen. "But it does bother me to say they can't get married."
Opponents said they fear being forced to recognize an institution they say runs against their religious beliefs, so the bill was amended to build in stronger protections for religious organizations so they don't have to perform gay marriages.
Despite Monday's vote, there's no assurance that the measure will get to the governor's desk because its passage in the Senate looks doubtful.
If the full Senate does pass it, the bill would go to the Assembly, which has not scheduled a vote, but where support is believed to be stronger than in the Senate.
Gay marriage is recognized in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa. It becomes legal in New Hampshire on Jan. 1.