TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) — In a decision likely to stoke the contentious election-year debate over same-sex marriage, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that state lawmakers must provide the rights and benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

The high court on Wednesday gave legislators six months to either change state marriage laws to include same-sex couples, or come up with another mechanism, such as civil unions, that would provide the same protections and benefits.

The court’s vote was 4-to-3. But the ruling was more strongly in favor of same-sex marriage than that split would indicate. The three dissenting justices argued the court should have extended full marriage rights to homosexuals, without kicking the issue back to legislators.

Advocates of same-sex marriage hailed the decision, a respite from many defeats this year in courts nationwide.

"That is wonderful news," said Cindy Meneghin, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit by seven same-sex couples that prompted Wednesday’s decision. "We can only hope that that means marriage, because that is the only way they can give us full equality."  

Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, announced that three state legislators plan to introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. In an e-mail to supporters, the chairman of the group, Steven Goldstein, vowed that only "over our dead bodies will we settle for less than 100 percent marriage equality."

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