The Supreme Court of the U.S. state of New Jersey has ruled that same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexuals but stopped short of ruling that they have the right to marry.

The court ruled that the state's legislature must act within six months to either revise marriage laws or enact new civil unions to include same-sex couples.

The court said the core issue is unequal rights and benefits received by heterosexual versus same-sex partners.

Seven same-sex couples filed a lawsuit claiming they have the right to marry under New Jersey's constitution.

The decision could pave the way for New Jersey to become the second U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage. The Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2003 allowing homosexual couples to marry.

The issue has become one of the most controversial in the United States in recent years. Courts in New York and Washington state have upheld bans on same-sex marriage, and at least a dozen states have passed constitutional referendums prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.