Gov. James McGreevey’s gay-friendly administration met a head-on challenge last week, deciding how to answer a lawsuit charging that local registrars violated same-sex couples’ rights by denying them marriage licenses.

Some members of the governor’s inner circle believe that the litigation may have an inimical effect on reform efforts signaled during his campaign — namely, creation of a domestic-partnership status with many of the attributes of marriage but without its religious significance.

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