New Jersey Should Allow Gay Marriage, State Court Is Told

New Jersey’s civil-union law doesn’t go far enough to protect legal rights of gay couples, and a judge should rule that same-sex couples can marry, a national advocacy group argued in a court filing.

Lambda Legal, representing supporters of gay marriage, urged a judge to “order that New Jersey allow same-sex couples to marry,” according to the state court motion today in Trenton. The group, which has litigated the question for a decade, has new momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 struck down a U.S. law denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

“State-sanctioned marriage provides the key to the full array of federal marital benefits,” according to the motion. “The discrimination manifest in relegating same-sex couples to civil union establishes the clearest possible violation of the state constitutional guarantee” of equal rights and benefits.

The challenge comes as advocates seek to use the Supreme Court ruling to expand the number of states where gay marriage is legal. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. In New Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union said today that it asked the state Supreme Court to rule on whether same-sex couples can marry.

In New Jersey, state Democratic lawmakers are seeking to override Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a same-sex marriage bill passed last year. Christie, a Republican, said marriage should be between a man and a woman.

November Referendum

Christie, appearing today in Toms River, declined to comment on the Lambda Legal challenge. He supports a referendum in November, saying voters should decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow same-sex marriage. Democrats have balked at a statewide vote on a matter that they say is a civil right.

“Even if it disagrees with my point of view, if the people of this state vote for it, then I will enforce that law and support that new section of the constitution with the same vigor that I enforce the law and support the constitution now,” Christie said.

“I’m willing to let the people decide,” Christie said. “I don’t know why the advocates for same-sex marriage and, more importantly, why the Democratic legislators are so afraid to let the people decide. If what they are saying is true, this’ll be a layup for them.”

Last week, the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denied legally married same-sex couples the federal benefits that opposite-sex spouses can claim.

The federal law “places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 5-4 decision.

Constitutional Right

The court stopped short of declaring a constitutional right for gays to marry. It also allowed gay marriages to resume in California, without ruling directly on that state’s voter-approved ban.

The New Jersey filing today was on behalf of Garden State Equality, an advocacy group, and six same-sex couples.

Lambda Legal first sued in New Jersey in 2002 seeking marriage equality. In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must get all the benefits of marriage. It didn’t require gay marriages, and gave the Legislature 180 days to act. The state passed a civil-union law later that year.

In June 2011, Lambda Legal sued for the freedom to marry, saying civil unions violated the state and federal constitutions. The motion today asks Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson to rule before a trial. Last week, Jacobson gave the state a month to respond to today’s filing. She set Aug. 15 for oral arguments.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has spoken, and it is clear that the time for marriage equality is now,” Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, said in a statement. “The debate is over, the facts are in, civil unions are not and never will be equal to marriage.”

The New Jersey case is Garden State Equality v. Dow, L-001729-11, New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County (Trenton).

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