Advocates on both sides of the issue had believed the relatively liberal New Jersey high court had the best chance of approving gay marriages since Massachusetts became the only state to do so in 2003.
But the high court stopped short of fully approving gay marriage in the state — it gave lawmakers 180 days to rewrite marriage laws to either include same-sex couples or create new civil unions.
"Although we cannot find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage exists in this state, the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state Constitution," Justice Barry T. Albin wrote for the 4-3 majority's decision.
"This is a victory for same-sex couples, but it also offers an olive branch to opponents of same-sex marriage because the Court, in a slim majority opinion, said that the state's citizens and legislators can determine for themselves what these unions ought to be called," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "Maybe marriage. Maybe something else."
Outside the Supreme Court, news of the ruling caused confusion, with many of the roughly 100 gay marriage supporters outside asking each other what it meant. Many started to agree that they needed to push for a state constitutional amendment to institute gay marriage.
Garden State Equality, New Jersey's main gay and lesbian political organization, quickly announced Wednesday that three lawmakers would introduce a bill in the Legislature to get full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Gay couples in New Jersey can already apply for domestic partnerships under a law the Legislature passed in 2004 giving gay couples some benefits of marriage, such as the right to inherit possessions if there is no will and health care coverage for state workers.
"The issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people," the court said in its 4-3 ruling.
David S. Buckel, the Lambda Legal lawyer who argued on behalf of the seven New Jersey couples, said he expects some couples would travel to the New Jersey to get married if his suit is successful. But, he said, "it won't be tidal."
And, he said, while many same-sex couples would prefer to be married, they are getting more legal protections for their relationships. Several states, including New Jersey, offer domestic partnerships or civil unions with some of the benefits of marriage. A growing number of employers are treating same-sex couples the same way they treat married couples.
Cases similar to New Jersey's are pending in California, Connecticut, Iowa and Maryland.
Until this ruling, gay marriage supporters had a two-year losing streak, striking out in state courts in New York and Washington state and in ballot boxes in 15 states where constitutions have been amended to ban same-sex unions.