A New Jersey judge ruled Friday that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry, finding that failing to do so deprives them of rights now guaranteed by the federal government following a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is the first time a court has struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage as a direct result of the Supreme Court's ruling, and it comes as Gov. Chris Christie continues to oppose allowing gay marriage in the state. Mr. Christie's office said it would appeal but declined to say whether it would also seek to prevent same-sex weddings from beginning Oct. 21, as the judge ordered.
"The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts," wrote the judge, Mary C. Jacobson of state Superior Court in Mercer County. "Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution."
For instance, Judge Jacobson wrote, civil union partners who are federal employees living in the state are not eligible for benefits stipulated in the federal pension system. Couples in civil unions also may not enjoy the same federal tax benefits as married couples or the protections of the Family Medical Leave Act, she wrote.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2006 that same-sex couples were entitled to all of the rights and benefits of marriage, but the court split 4-3 on the question of whether they had a fundamental right to marry under the state constitution. The majority found that no such right existed.
The state Legislature responded by passing a bill to allow civil unions, but same-sex couples sued again, in Superior Court in Mercer County, arguing that civil unions denied them many benefits, particularly in health care decisions and financial matters.
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 to allow same-sex marriage, but it was vetoed by Mr. Christie, a Republican who is considered a leading candidate for his party's 2016 presidential nomination. In his veto, he urged the Legislature to put the issue before voters to decide. The Democratic-led Legislature declined, saying questions of civil rights should not be subject to referendum. Legislative leaders have said they will try to override Mr. Christie's veto, which they have until January to do.
The governor's office, in a statement Friday, reiterated his call for the question to be decided by voters. "Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination," the statement said.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. The court's 5-4 decision meant that the federal government must provide the same benefits to gay couples as to heterosexual couples.
In her ruling, Judge Jacobson found that the Supreme Court decision itself did not render New Jersey's parallel marriage and civil union structures invalid. Rather, she interpreted the ruling to "condemn only federal action that does not recognize civil union as equivalent to marriage."
The state argued in court that it was the federal government that denied benefits to couples in a civil union, not the state, so therefore the state could not be found to be violating the rights of the couples.
The plaintiffs argued that by creating separate structures for opposite-sex and same-sex couples, the state created two separate labels that now matter on a federal level and could therefore be held responsible for depriving same-sex couples equal treatment.
Judge Jacobson found that the state was responsible for not treating same-sex couples equally. In practical terms, her decision means that the state must now recognize same-sex marriage.
Same-sex couples are able to marry in 13 states and the District of Columbia. At least six other states offer some form of protection for same-sex couples, including allowing civil unions such as the ones in New Jersey.
Judge Jacobson's opinion was provided in a summary judgment in a case brought by Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy group. Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, which argued the case on behalf of same-sex couples, called the order "thrilling."
"The end of DOMA made the freedom to marry even more urgent than before, because the state stood between these families and a host of federal protections, benefits, rights and responsibilities," she said. "With this ruling, our clients and all of New Jersey's same-sex couples are at the threshold of the freedom to marry."
Cindy Meneghin, who along with her high school sweetheart, Maureen Kilian, was among the couples who sued more than a decade ago to force the state to allow same-sex marriage, said, "We couldn't be happier.
"The U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA was historic for the nation but out of reach for us here in New Jersey," she added. "Today, with this ruling, the full benefits of that historic Supreme Court decision are within our reach."