The New Jersey Senate should approve a bill to authorize gay marriage, and advance the cause of equality for so many of the state's citizens.

The pending vote Thursday in the Senate is in doubt, and the Assembly has not indicated whether it will take up the question. But gay and lesbian citizens deserve the issue to be settled in their favor.

The state's experiment with civil unions was supposed to provide gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples. But too often that is not the case. Gay couples instead face questions about the extent of their civil rights. And denying them the right to call their partnership a "marriage" makes it, by definition, something less than one.

New Jersey should end this confusion and become the sixth state to certify same-sex marriages as legal. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire have already approved same-sex marriage laws.

It is important that the Senate bill spells out that religious organizations could not be forced to sanction or participate in any gay marriage. That should help preserve a church's First Amendment right to oppose same-sex marriages and not perform them.

Of course, as constitutional attorney David Boies and others have argued, the First Amendment and equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution also preclude anyone from using state law to impose his or her religious beliefs on others.

Same-sex marriage has been debated in Trenton for years. Unfortunately, legislative leaders have decided to advance the issue in a lame-duck session, a traditional time to ram through controversial measures.

This move conveys the impression that a gay-marriage bill can succeed only through the political equivalent of a sneak attack, rather than on its merits.

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign the bill; Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who takes office Jan. 19, said he would veto it.

Past polls have shown the measure has public support. So, why was it held until the waning days of a lame-duck governor's term?

But gay citizens are not as concerned with political process as they are with gaining the unqualified right to marry. No matter how people feel about the issue personally, the ultimate question is a legal one.

In cases where there is no clear danger to the general public or another individual, personal views should not prohibit a fellow citizen from enjoying the same civil rights as anyone else.

Despite a number of polls favoring same-sex marriage, it has failed in every state where the issue has been put to a public vote. But the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the Constitution exist to ensure that the majority does not trample on the rights of the minority.

Indeed, Boies and former Solicitor General Ted Olson are using that argument at the Supreme Court to try to overturn California's Proposition 8, which forbids gay marriage in that state.

Civil unions in New Jersey represented progress, but there's been ample evidence that they don't provide the true equality that gay and lesbian citizens seek.