New Jersey’s lesbian and gay community is waking up to the potential of fairer and equal rights this morning after the state’s Supreme Court agreed that blocking same sex marriage is unconstitutional.

In a move universally welcomed by gay groups across the US, the court agreed by a 4-3 split vote decision that the state legislature should allow same sex marriage and equalise gay rights.

Justice Barry Albin, who authored the 66 page majority ruling said unequal rights can no longer be tolerated, “[The] unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution.

“Our decision significantly advances the civil rights of gays and lesbians. We have decided that our State Constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples.”

Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of gay group, Family Pride, described the ruling as a depiction of the “real needs of the LGBT community.”

She said: “The unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court ruling speaks to the very real needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) headed families and recognises our need to protect one another and our children.

Ms Chrisler said a change in the law would make it easier for children of same sex parents to explain to others that their mums or dads are married.

She warned that a new law must give full marriage rights.

The case was brought by gay law group Lambda Legal in June 2002 on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking marriage.

After appealing at both the trial court and middle appellate court levels, the last stop for this case was the New Jersey Supreme Court.

David Buckel, the group’s Marriage Project Director, expressed hope that a law would be passed quickly, “The Legislature cares about families and helping people be more responsible for each other and their children, so we hope it will pass a law quickly to honor the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.”

Joel Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, applauded the decision he said, “We congratulate and commend the work of Lambda Legal and the plaintiff couples who had the courage and resolve to bring this case forward.”

However, he warned that an upcoming vote on the Federal Defence of Marriage Act risks taking those rights away, “Although this case is a major step forward in ending discrimination, a federal law, the so-called Defence of Marriage Act, denies same-sex couples over 1,000 protections, and puts these couples at risk that they will not be recognised as families when they cross state lines.”

The plaintiffs in the case were Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow, two Episcopalian pastors from Union City, Hudson County, Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, who have been together 17 years and are raising a seven-year-old son, Kasey, and three-year-old daughter Maya; Saundra Heath-Toby and Alicia Toby-Heath, Craig Hutchison and Chris Lodewyks, who have been a couple for 35 years and live in Pompton Lakes; Marilyn Maneely and Diane Marini, a southern New Jersey couple who were together for 14 years before Marilyn died tragically in the fall of 2005, Sarah and Suyin Lael, a 16-year couple raising three girls, nine-year-old Zenzali, seven-year-old Tanaj and six-year-old Danica; and Maureen Kilian and Cindy Meneghin, a couple of 32 years with a 14-year-old son, Josh, and an 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.

Massachusetts is currently the only state which allows same sex marriage, but Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin are all set to vote on the issue next month.

The ruling comes ahead of Congress elections on November 7 and several gay rights votes across many US states on gay army recruits, same sex marriage and hate crimes.