New Jersey’s highest court cleared the way for gay marriages to begin Monday, making the state the 14th to allow same-sex marriages while handing a defeat to Republican Governor Chris Christie.
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously rejected Christie’s request that it block such marriages while the state appeals a judge’s ruling that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry. The governor sought a stay of Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson’s Sept. 27 decision that New Jersey’s civil-union law unconstitutionally discriminated against gay couples. The state’s highest court has scheduled oral arguments in that appeal for Jan. 6 and 7.
“We can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process unfolds,” the judges said in yesterday’s ruling. Same-sex couples who are eligible may enter into civil marriages beginning Oct. 21, the court said.
Christie has instructed state agencies to comply with the order, press secretary Michael Drewniak said in an e-mail.
“The Supreme Court has made its determination,” Drewniak wrote. “While the governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the state of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order of the Superior Court under the applicable law.”
Jacobson acted after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 struck down a federal law denying benefits to same-sex married couples. She ruled that because federal agencies deny benefits such as Medicare coverage to couples joined in a civil union, “same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law” under the state constitution. Meanwhile, Oregon’s justice department said in an Oct. 16 legal opinion that agencies there must recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, even though the state’s constitution bars such nuptials.
Christie’s acting attorney general, John J. Hoffman, had argued that letting gay marriages proceed without a full review by the Supreme Court would cause “irreparable harm” as marriage license grants would be “virtually impossible” to undo. The Supreme Court rejected those arguments.
“The state has advanced a number of arguments, but none of them overcome this reality: same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today. The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative,” the panel ruled.
The court’s ruling was met by applause and tears from advocates and couples waiting to marry this weekend.
“The long wait in New Jersey is finally over -- the door is open for love, commitment and equality under the law,” Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal and an attorney for plaintiffs in the case, said in an e-mailed statement. “Take out the champagne glasses -- wedding bells will soon be ringing in New Jersey!”
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Jacobson’s assessment. Although New Jersey claims the federal government must defer to states in matters concerning domestic relations, federal agency rulings are following New Jersey’s rule about who may marry, the court said. The U.S. Supreme Court case, which hinged on federal benefits to widowed New York resident Edie Windsor, “changed the landscape,” the New Jersey court ruled.
The ruling, the court said, draws a stark distinction between same-sex couples joined in a civil union and those allowed to marry. Civil union partners in New Jersey aren’t eligible for “a host of federal benefits,” the court said. They can’t claim leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, they can’t get coverage for health benefits as a “spouse” of a federal employee and they can’t file a joint federal tax return. If a civil-union partner dies while a stay is in place, the surviving partner and children would be forever denied federal marital protections, the court said.
“The ongoing injury that plaintiffs face today cannot be repaired with an award of money damages at a later time,” the court said.
In Lambertville, a city of about 3,900 residents on the Delaware River where restaurants and art galleries display gay-pride flags, Mayor David DelVecchio had plans to preside over New Jersey’s first same-sex wedding at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 21. He officiated in 2007 at one of the state’s first civil unions, of Beth Asaro, 53, a city councilwoman, and Joanne Schailey, 56, a registered nurse.
“There’s nothing in our way now,” Asaro said through tears in a telephone interview after she got word of the stay. The couple married in New York two years ago, she said, and won’t have to wait the 72 hours.
“We’ll just show up with out license and we can get married right after midnight,” Asaro said.
Cindy Ege, the city clerk, said she was trying to reach 13 Lambertville couples to tell them the legal matter was resolved, and to fill out license applications.
“I had a ton more wanting to get married, but they don’t reside in Lambertville so they need to go to their own town,” Ege said by telephone.
The case is a political test for Christie, who is seeking re-election next month and is a possible GOP candidate for president in 2016.
“I’m jubilant,” Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent, said during a campaign appearance in Trenton. “The governor needs to step aside. He’s on the wrong side of history. He’s been on the wrong side of history for a while. He needs to just let it go.”
Any further legal pursuit to block the unions, Buono said, would be “unforgivable.
New Jersey’s civil-union law took effect in February 2007, after the court ruled in 2006 that the state must provide to same-sex couples ‘‘the full rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.’’
Seven years later, that law isn’t working, Jacobson said in a case filed by Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal, which represents six same-sex couples and their children.
They asked the Supreme Court to deny New Jersey’s request for a stay, arguing that the state can’t meet the legal standard of showing irreparable harm and a likelihood of success on appeal.
The case is Garden State Equality v. Dow, L-001729-11, New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County (Trenton).