Salvador Rizzo/The Star-Ledger By Salvador Rizzo
TRENTON — A state judge today ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey, saying gay couples would be denied federal benefits if the state kept allowing only civil unions.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson granted an emergency request by six gay couples, ordering state officials to begin officiating same-sex marriages on Oct. 21.
“Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey constitution,” the judge wrote in a 53-page opinion.
But Gov. Chris Christie, who opposes gay marriage, vowed today to appeal the ruling all the way to the state Supreme Court.
“Governor Christie has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters on the issue of marriage equality and called for it to be on the ballot this Election Day,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. “Since the Legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.”
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The case could take months to reach New Jersey’s highest court. The governor’s office did not say whether it would seek to freeze Jacobson’s order while the appeal is pending.
In the meantime, gay rights advocates reacted with joy, celebrating a “historic day” that brings New Jersey in line with nearby states including Connecticut, Maryland and New York.
“It’s apwonderful victory,” said Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney for the six couples and the group Garden State Equality. “New Jersey has always been on the forefront of protecting constitutional rights. This decision keeps us in that tradition.View full size
Hayley Gorenberg, another attorney for the couples from the group Lambda Legal, called it “a resounding and satisfying and well deserved victory for our clients.”
“It means so much to my clients and their couples and their children and their families throughout the state,” she said. “They’ve fought long and hard to be able to protect the people they love most without discrimination.”
Christie’s administration had argued that the matter was out of New Jersey’s hands since the only pressing questions were over federal, not state, benefits.
Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal had argued that after the U.S. Supreme Court extended more than 1,000 tax and inheritance benefits to same-sex couples in June, New Jersey was left behind with “second-class” civil unions that could not reap those legal boons and protections.
Jacobson, the head judge in Mercer County, agreed.
“The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts,” she wrote.
For example, the judge said, “civil union partners who are federal employees living in New Jersey are ineligible for marital rights with regard to the federal pension system, all civil union partners who are employees working for businesses to which the Family and Medical Leave Act applies may not rely on its statutory protections for spouses, and civil union couples may not access the federal tax benefits that married couples enjoy.”
Advocacy groups and Democratic state officials reacted quickly, cheering Jacobson’s decision and urging Christie to let it stand unchallenged. And vowing to fight it if Christie did appeal.
“We have been saying it for months and it stands true today: through litigation or legislation, we will win the dignity of marriage this year,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality. “We just won the first round through litigation and we will continue to fight until we guarantee marriage for all New Jersey couples.”
State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said she was “ecstatic” at the news and urged Christie not to appeal the court’s ruling.
“This is a great victory for civil rights and treating everyone equally under the law,” Oliver said in a statement. “October 21 should be a very exciting day for many loving New Jersey couples, and I hope Gov. Christie does the right thing and does not appeal. Justice has already been denied for far too long. Let’s clear the way for equal rights for all families.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) also urged Christie not to appeal.
“I am thrilled this court decision now brings us closer to fulfilling our nation’s promise of equality and I urge our governor and state attorney general to accept this ruling and finally give same-sex couples in New Jersey the equal rights they deserve,” Menendez said in a statement. “Every person should receive equal treatment no matter who they love.”
Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said a coalition of groups pushing for gay marriage would also keep pressing state lawmakers for an override of Christie’s gay-marriage veto last year. The Democratic-controlled Legislature is nearly a dozen votes shy of being able to overturn the veto.
“Today’s decision leaves no doubt that only the freedom to marry provides the equality that same-sex families deserve,” Ofer said in a statement. “We encourage the state to respect the court’s decision and to not further prolong the inequality suffered by New Jersey families. The ACLU-NJ will continue to work with our allies across the state to encourage the legislature to bring full equality to New Jersey as soon as possible.”
But John Tomicki, president of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, said the institution should be kept to “one man and one woman” and that the ruling puts “freedom of religion and freedom of conscience at great risk.”
“If a member of a religious denomination says that within their faith beliefs, they do not support same-gender marriage, will it be an act of discrimination if they refuse to officiate at such marriage?” Tomicki said. “Those are cases that are going on now across the country.”
Jacobson was asked to square the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June striking down the Defense of Marriage Act with New Jersey’s own legal precedents.
In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that gay couples must receive all the rights and benefits that heterosexual couples got, although the justices left it to the state Legislature to decide whether to call it marriage or something else. Lawmakers instead set up civil unions.
The New Jersey Assembly on Thursday passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages, setting the stage for an expected veto by Gov. Chris Christie.
The 42-33 vote sends the bill to Christie’s desk. The Republican governor who opposes gay marriage had promised “very swift action” if the bill passed both houses of the Legislature. The Senate approved the bill Monday.