Same-sex couples in New Jersey must be allowed to marry because the state’s current civil-union law doesn’t offer them equal protection, a judge ruled.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled today in Trenton that she “will order the state to permit any and all same-sex marriages.” Unless the ruling is blocked, it would take effect Oct. 21, making New Jersey the 14th state to allow gay marriages along with the District of Columbia.
Jacobson ruled before a trial on a request by Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal, which represents six same-sex couples and their children who sued. They asked Jacobson for the ruling after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 struck down a federal law denying benefits to same-sex married couples.
“Every day that the state does not allow same-sex couples to marry, plaintiffs are being harmed,” Jacobson ruled. “Plaintiffs are ineligible for many federal marital benefits at this moment, and their right to equal protection under the New Jersey Constitution should not be delayed until some undeterminable future time.”
Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who is expected to win re-election in November, vetoed a same-sex marriage bill last year. He said the question of gay marriage should be decided by voters in a referendum, and he will honor the results.
Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature resisted Christie’s call, saying gay marriage is a civil right that doesn’t belong on the ballot. Christie’s administration defended civil unions in the case before Jacobson.
“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 spokesman Michael Drewniak. “Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.”
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest gay-rights group, cheered the ruling and vowed to pursue a fight that took on new urgency after the Supreme Court ruling.
“We will win marriage equality through litigation or legislation -- we just won the first round through litigation,” Stevenson said in an interview. “We will continue fighting until we have the dignity of marriage equality.”
In arguments before Jacobson in August, Lambda Legal’s lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said that not allowing same-sex couples to marry will have “devastating” consequences because the federal government denies an array of benefits to couples who are not married. He said the question is a matter of equal protection under the law and has moral overtones.
Jacobson agreed, ruling that the ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits hurts them in “a wide range of contexts,” such as pension benefits, family leave protections and tax benefits.
“If the trend of federal agencies deeming civil union partners ineligible for benefits continues, plaintiffs will suffer even more, while their opposite-sex New Jersey counterparts continue to receive federal marital benefits for no reason other than the label placed upon their relationship by the state,” the judge wrote.
Such unequal treatment “requires that New Jersey extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution.”
Christie’s Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, said the ruling “reaffirms that all New Jerseyans, no matter who they love, deserve the right to marry.” The governor, she said, “stands on the wrong side of history” and must decide “whether to be an obstacle or to be part of the solution.”
Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s deputy legal director, said the news is “thrilling.”
“We argued that limiting lesbians and gay men to civil union is unfair and unconstitutional, and now the court has agreed,” Gorenberg said in a statement.
Democratic lawmakers have pushed for an override of Christie’s veto. The gay-marriage bill passed 24-16 in the Senate and 42-33 in the Assembly.
An override would require 27 votes in the Senate, where Democrats rule 24-16, and 54 in the Assembly, where they dominate 48-32.
The case is Garden State Equality v. Dow, L-001729-11, New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County (Trenton).