updated 1/7/2010 6:18:40 PM ET 2010-01-07T23:18:40

New Jersey's state Senate has defeated a bill to legalize gay marriage, leaving it unlikely the state will have a gay marriage law in the very near future.

The bill needed 21 votes to pass; only 14 senators approved the measure Thursday.

Gay-rights advocates had pushed hard to get the bill passed before Jan. 19, when Republican Chris Christie becomes governor. Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine promised to sign the bill if approved by the Legislature but Christie has said he would veto it.

New Jersey offers civil unions that grant the legal rights of marriage to gay couples. Five states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont — allow gay marriage.

Meanwhile, the national debate over same-sex marriage will take center stage in a California courtroom next week at a federal trial that could ultimately become the landmark case that determines whether gay Americans have a right to marry.

The case will decide a challenge to California's gay-marriage ban that was approved by voters in 2008, and the ruling will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. How the high court rules in the case could set the precedent for whether gay marriage becomes legal nationwide.

"This could be our Brown vs. Board of Education," said former Clinton White House adviser Richard Socarides, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in schools and other public facilities. "Certainly the plaintiffs will tell you they are hoping for a broad ruling that says that any law that treats someone differently because of sexual orientation violates the U.S. Constitution."

The case marks the first federal trial to examine if the U.S. Constitution permits bans on gay marriages, and the challenge is being bankrolled by a group of liberal Hollywood activists including director Rob Reiner and producer Bruce Cohen.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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