A New Jersey Superior Court judge has ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act.
Mercer County Superior Court judge Mary Jacobson ruled that the state must recognize gay marriages in order to guarantee equal protections to same-sex couples according to the New Jersey Constitution. Same-sex marriages can begin 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,” Jacobson said.
In her decision, Jacobson wrote that after DOMA was invalidated, same-sex couples have not had access to the federal benefits given to legally married couples in other states, including benefits of the federal pension system and federal tax benefits.
The New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006 ruled same-sex couples should have all the rights and benefits of heterosexual couples, and in 2007, the state legislature legalized civil unions, which gave gay couples the rights of married couples without the title “marriage.” That allowed them access to state benefits, but not federal.
Jacobson said that labeling gay unions “civil unions” and not “marriage” denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.
“Whereas before [the DOMA Supreme Court ruling] same-sex couples in New Jersey would have been denied federal benefits regardless of what their relationship was called, these couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the State,” Jacobson ruled.
The case, brought by a pro-same sex marriage group Garden State Equality and six gay couples, is just the latest chapter in a saga for the state over the issue of same-sex marriage.
“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.”
And it complicates things for the state’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed a bill that would legalize gay marriage in 2012.
Christie, who is running for re-election as governor and is believed to be interested in running for president in 2016, has had a mixed political relationship with the gay community. In August he signed a bill banning controversial gay conversion therapy, but he also said after the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling that he still believes that the issue should be put to voters as a ballot measure.
Chrisite has said that he supports civil unions and believes that people are born gay and that homosexuality is not a sin. But he also insists that legislatures and courts should not decide the issue.
Christie’s office, responding to today’s ruling, implied he would appeal the decision 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’s press secretary Michael Drewniak in a statement. “Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.”
Christie’s Democratic challenger, N.J. State Senator Barbara Buono, whose daughter is gay, hailed the decision in a statement and slammed Christie for opposing gay marriage.
“Today’s decision reaffirms that all New Jerseyans, no matter who they love, deserve the right to marry. It is a tremendous victory for everyone who believes in equality,” Buono said. “It is also a stark reminder that Governor Christie stands on the wrong side of history. At every turn, he has prevented our gay brothers and sisters from enjoying the same rights as other New Jerseyans.”
“He must now make a decision whether to continue to be an obstacle or to be part of the solution,” she added.