By Ellen Wulfhorst
TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - The legalization of same-sex marriage faces a critical test in New Jersey, where advocates on each side of the controversial issue argue will shape the fate of gay-marriage battles across the nation.
New Jersey could be poised to join five other U.S. states that allow gay couples to wed, if the proposal to legalize gay marriage passes a vote in the state Senate.
That vote was postponed indefinitely on Wednesday at the request of the bill's sponsors so that the state Assembly Judiciary Committee could first hold a hearing on the matter. A new date for the vote has not yet been set.
"The public needs another opportunity to engage legislators on this issue," said state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor, in a statement. The state Senate Judiciary committee heard seven hours of public testimony earlier this week before narrowly approving the measure for a full Senate vote.
Advocates hope to pass the bill in the legislature so Governor Jon Corzine, a supporter, can sign it into law before leaving office next month. Incoming Republican Chris Christie, who defeated Corzine in November, has said he would veto it.
Opponents say they are "nervously optimistic" that lawmakers will not vote for the bill, as happened in neighboring New York last week. And they hope its defeat in New Jersey will end efforts to promote gay marriage nationally for some time.
"If New Jersey rejects gay marriage, this is the last hope the gay marriage movement has of legislatively approving gay marriage any time in the foreseeable future," said Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage. "It's an important vote."
Five U.S. states have legalized gay marriage -- Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Another 40 states have specific laws banning it. Last month voters in Maine repealed a gay marriage law.
"THAT'S A WINNING YEAR"
Advocates say the New Jersey battle caps a year of victories. Gay marriage became legal in Vermont and Iowa in 2009 and takes effect January 1, 2010 in New Hampshire.
In the District of Columbia, a city council vote on same-sex marriage is set for next week, with a win likely.
"By really any standard, that's a winning year, even if we didn't win every battle," said Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, adding that a loss in New Jersey "won't say very much except that a handful of senators didn't rise to the moment."
Such a loss would slow but not derail their effort, advocates say.
"We are moving forward," said Marty Rouse, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign. "For every two steps forward, there is a step back."
Observers say the measure's fate in the Democrat-controlled New Jersey state senate is uncertain. The bill is seen as faring better in the Assembly, also Democrat-controlled.
"It's going to be a very close vote," said Democratic Senator Raymond Lesniak, a sponsor of the bill, after the state senate Judiciary Committee vote on Monday. "There's no guarantee on this vote, that's for sure."
Looking beyond New Jersey, efforts to legalize same-sex marriage are likely to come in New York again, and in Rhode Island, Minnesota and Maryland, backers say.
PUTTING IT TO A POPULAR VOTE
Some opponents would like to see the question put to a popular vote. Gay marriage has been defeated each of the 31 times it has been put before state voters at the ballot box.
"Ultimately we would support the right of New Jersey citizens to vote on the measure themselves," said Austin Nimocks, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund that opposes same-sex marriage.
Other battles over gay marriage lie in the U.S. courts while in Congress, a bill is pending that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits federal recognition of same sex marriages.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)