TRENTON - A New Jersey legislative committee last night approved a gay-marriage bill by a vote of 7-6.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee cast the first votes ever by New Jersey lawmakers on the contentious issue. If passed when it goes to the full Senate on Thursday, New Jersey would become the sixth state in the nation to recognize gay marriage.

Several senators have never stated publicly where they stand on the issue.

The bill would also need to be passed in the Assembly, where no vote is scheduled but where support is believed to be stronger than in the Senate.

Proponents are pushing to pass it now because Gov. Jon Corzine has said he'd sign it. Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who is to be sworn in on Jan. 19, says he would veto it.

Testimony yesterday came from social conservatives who argue that "redefining" marriage would weaken one of society's most important institutions and that the public should vote on such an important issue. Lawmakers also heard from gay couples who said that they've faced discrimination, and from Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a civil-rights icon, who told lawmakers that they would be "standing for right and on the right side of history" if they allow gay marriage.

New Jersey already has civil unions, which are intended to give the same legal benefits as marriage.