TRENTON, N.J. — About 24 hours after New Jersey lawmakers sent a same-sex marriage bill to his desk, Gov. Chris Christie sent it back with his promised veto.

The governor’s rejection now gives sponsors of the bill and supporters of marriage equality in New Jersey nearly two years to rally enough support in the Assembly and Senate to override Christie.

That effort had already begun before Christie’s action, which came in the form of a conditional veto announced Friday afternoon.

Christie wants the issue to go before voters in the fall in the form of a statewide ballot question because it would require an amendment of the state constitution. His conditional veto calls for the creation of an ombudsman — a sort of overseer — to ensure that the rights provided through civil unions, the only option currently available to gay couples, are enforced.

“Today, I am adhering to what I’ve said since this bill was first introduced — an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide,” Christie said.

Also on Friday, Maryland’s House voted 71-67 to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage. Next up is the Senate, which handily passed a similar bill last year, and Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign it.

Flu season off to latest start in decades

ATLANTA — Health officials say the flu season is finally here — the slowest start in nearly 25 years.

Until this month, there weren’t enough flu cases in the U.S. to signal the start of the season. This is the latest start to a flu season since the winter of 1987-1988.

Flu season usually starts in December or January. Often, it’s half over by late February. CDC officials don’t know why this season was slow but it could be a combination of factors.

On Friday, CDC officials said one state — California — has had widespread cases for the last two weeks, and Missouri has seen a spike in reports of flu-like illness.

So far the flu vaccine seems well-matched to the strains making people sick. Last flu season was considered average.

Gauge of economic activity up 0.4 pct. in January

WASHINGTON — A gauge of future economic activity rose in January for the fourth straight month, adding to evidence that the economy has strengthened in the new year.

The Conference Board said Friday that its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.4 percent in January. The increase pushed the index to its highest point since July 2008.

The measure of leading indicators is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out. Its steady rise has coincided with other positive data that suggest the recovery is picking up.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest in nearly three years, after employers added 243,000 net jobs — the most in nine months. Auto sales are up, unemployment aid applications are down, and factories are cranking out goods at a healthy pace.

Facebook hack lands UK student in prison

LONDON — A British student who stole sensitive information from Facebook’s internal network was sentenced to eight months in prison Friday in what prosecutors described as the most serious case of social media hacking ever brought before the country’s courts.

Prosecutor Sandip Patel said that Glenn Mangham, 26, had hacked into the social networking giant’s computers from his bedroom in the northern England city of York and stole what was described as “invaluable” intellectual property.

“He acted with determination, undoubted ingenuity and it was sophisticated, it was calculating,” Patel told London’s Southwark Crown Court ahead of sentencing Friday. He added later: “This represents the most extensive and grave incident of social media hacking to be brought before the British courts.”

London Chief Prosecutor Alison Saunders echoed Patel’s description, saying in a statement that Mangham’s actions were “extensive and flagrant.” It was not immediately clear exactly what he stole, although Saunders said that no personal user data had been compromised.

Global clearinghouse ready to evict Iranian banks

BRUSSELS — A financial clearinghouse used by virtually every country and major corporation in the world agreed Friday to shut out Iran from its respected network, an unprecedented escalation of global economic pressure to halt Iran’s suspected drive for nuclear weapons.

Quicker than a succession of slow-acting economic sanctions, expelling Iran from the banking hub could put a sudden choke hold on its oil-dependent economy. The move was made under strong pressure from the United States and the European Union, which are looking for ways to derail Iran’s nuclear program quickly without a military strike.

“If SWIFT follows through on its public commitment to ban Iranian banks, it could sever the Iranian regime’s financial lifeline,” said Mark Dubowitz, an Iran sanctions expert advising the Obama administration. “It would also be a significant political embarrassment for the regime: Iran would be the first country in SWIFT’s history to be expelled from what is the financial equivalent o f the United Nations.”

The European Union is expected to act within weeks to effectively cut off major Iranian banks from participation in The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as SWIFT. It’s a move of last resort, with risks ranging from huge inflation and financial hardship for ordinary Iranians to disruption and price increases on the world oil market. Iran could also retali ate in unpredictable ways.

The EU has already imposed the first embargo on Iranian oil, to take effect this summer. The strongest-yet U.S. sanctions on Iran’s lifeblood oil sector are due later this year.

SWIFT said in a statement on its web site that it will comply with the expected instruction to cut off Iranian banks. SWIFT has previously brushed off international efforts to use its network to target countries or companies, telling enforcers that it does not judge the merits of the transactions passing through the portal.

SWIFT’s statement said the decision essentially to kick out a member country “reflects the extraordinary and highly exceptional circumstances of significant multilateral international support for the intensification of sanctions against Iran.”

The rapid expansion of what had been a gradual, years long effort to deter a weapons program reflects rising alarm that Iran may be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon. Israel, which takes seriously Iran’s threat to eradicate the Jewish state, is openly considering a military strike on Iranian nuclear processing facilities.

There was no immediate response from Iran. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. U.S. officials say they believe Iran hasn’t yet decided whether to build a nuclear weapon.