New Jersey’s Supreme Court has refused to hear a case on gay marriage, telling supporters to pursue it through the lower courts.

The state currently has civil unions but gay campaigners are pushing for full marriage equality.

They hoped to persuade the Supreme Court to look at the issue but the judges split 3-3 on hearing the case. Four votes are needed for a motion to pass.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Roberto Rivera-Soto and Helen Hoens said that the issue “cannot be decided without the development of an appropriate trial-like record”.

However, they did not say that the case was without merit.

Justices Virginia Long, Jaynee LaVecchia and Barry Albin, who all voted to hear the case, said they hoped that proceedings in a lower court, the Superior Court, would be conducted “with all deliberate speed”.

The case was brought on behalf of six gay couples who are in civil unions.

Garden State Equality chairman Steve Goldstein told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Our battle never stops.No doubt we’ll be back in court. The Supreme Court encouraged our side to file a new suit, and we’ll do just that.”

A gay marriage bill failed by 20 votes to 14 in January and new governor Chris Christie is on record as being against same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that gay couples must be granted all the rights of marriage and left the legislature to decide how this should be enacted.

Lawmakers opted to legalise civil unions, but campaigners say they are not adequate because many employees in hospitals and insurance companies do not understand the concept.