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Speaking on the radio station New Jersey 101.5 on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie said the state would defend the civil union law. He also said he is willing to improve it if it needs more protections.

“I don’t want same-sex couples to be deprived of legal rights,” he said. But he added: “Marriage is an institution that has centuries-old implications in both religious and cultural institutions. I believe it should remain between one man and one woman.”

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said he does not believe that judges will agree that gay couples face discrimination. He says only 12 of formal civil rights complaints have been filed by the more than 5,400 couples who have been joined in civil unions.

“Every person in the state of New Jersey has a right to marry a person of the opposite sex,” he said. “The Legislature has decided that if you reject that and want to have a relationship with a person of the same sex — we are going to call two men or two women civil unions.”

The civil unions law was enacted a few months after New Jersey’s top court in late 2006 ordered the state to extend to gay couples the legal rights and protections that married couples receive. Lawmakers stopped short of recognizing same-sex marriages, which at that point were legal only in Massachusetts.

Gay rights groups pledged to push for full marriage rights and constantly have pointed out the shortcomings of the law and the way it was carried out.

They mounted a major push to get a same-sex marriage law passed by the beginning of 2010, before Mr. Christie, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, replaced Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. But the advocates, opposed by social conservative groups and the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, could not quite muster the votes to pass it.

Gay rights groups tried to get the state Supreme Court to take up the original case again last year, but the court said no, setting up the latest new lawsuit.

This month, Democratic state Senate President Stephen Sweeney apologized for abstaining on the gay-marriage vote. He said he was doing what was politically expedient rather than what was right.