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updated 2/13/2012 1:58:25 PM ET 2012-02-13T18:58:25

New Jersey lawmakers gave their blessing to legalizing gay marriage for the first time Monday as the state Senate passed a bill that would allow nuptials for same-sex couples. Gov. Chris Christie has said he will veto such legislation.

The Senate's vote sends the bill to the Assembly, which is expected to pass it Thursday.

Six states and Washington, D.C., allow gay marriage, and Washington state will join that list when Gov. Christine Gregoire signs legislation legalizing same-sex marriage Monday.

New Jersey's governor, a Republican, announced his veto intentions last month. He has said he does not believe marriage laws should be changed, but he does support New Jersey's civil union law, which grants gay couples the legal protections of marriage.

Christie said he wants to put a change in the definition of marriage to a public vote.

But gay rights groups oppose a referendum. They see gay marriage as a civil rights matter and argue that it should not be up to the masses to protect the rights of a minority group.

Five years ago, New Jersey's state Supreme Court ruled that gay couples should have the same rights as married heterosexual couples. In response, the Legislature created civil unions.

Gay rights advocates say that because the civil union designation is hard to understand and still treats committed gays differently from married couples, the courts should eliminate civil unions and recognize gay marriage. A lawsuit seeking to do that is in the state court system.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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