A New Jersey judge ruled Friday that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry, saying that not doing so deprives them of rights that were guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
It is the first time a court has struck down a state’s refusal to legalize same-sex marriage as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and with lawsuits pending in other states, it could presage other successful challenges.
The decision was a rebuff to Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature last year that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry. Christie’s office said it would appeal to the state’s highest court. He is quite likely to seek a stay preventing same-sex marriages from beginning Oct. 21, as the judge ordered.
New Jersey was particularly ripe for challenge after the Supreme Court ruling, because of a previous ruling by the state’s highest court in 2006.
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In that decision, Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples were entitled to all of the rights and benefits of marriage.
But the court stopped short of saying they had a fundamental right to marry and, in an unusual step, instructed the Legislature to define how to confer equal protection.
The Legislature responded by passing a bill to allow civil unions, but same-sex couples sued again, arguing that civil unions denied them many benefits, particularly in health-care decisions and financial matters.
“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 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.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act meant that the federal government must provide the same benefits to gay married couples as it does to heterosexual married couples.
Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his opinion that the ruling was “confined” to legal marriages, and several federal agencies have since said that partners in civil unions would not be extended benefits, including those having to do with immigration, tax status and health care. Thirteen states, including Washington, and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to marry.
While the decision is limited to New Jersey, gay-rights advocates said it would help fuel the argument that marriage is a fundamental right for gay couples.
The ruling sets a political backdrop for Christie, who is up for re-election in November and is considered a leading candidate for his party’s nomination for president in 2016.
His Democratic challenger in the governor’s race, state Sen. Barbara Buono, called the ruling “a stark reminder that Gov. Christie stands on the wrong side of history.”