A New Jersey judge ruled Friday that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry, finding that failing to do so deprives them of rights that are now guaranteed by the federal government following a ruling by the Supreme Court in June.
It is the first time a court has struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and it comes as Governor Chris Christie continues to oppose allowing gay marriage in the state. The state could appeal. In a statement, Christie declined to say whether his administration would seek to prevent same-sex weddings beginning Oct. 21, as the judge ordered.
“The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts,” wrote the judge, Mary C. Jacobson of state Superior Court in Mercer County. “Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution.”
For instance, Jacobson wrote, civil union partners who are federal employees living in the state are not eligible for benefits stipulated in the federal pension system.
Couples in civil unions also may not enjoy the same federal tax benefits as married couples or the protections of the Family Medical Leave Act, she wrote.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2006 that same-sex couples were entitled to all of the rights and benefits of marriage, but the court split, 4 to 3, on the question of whether they had a fundamental right to marry under the state constitution. The majority found that no such right existed.
The Legislature responded by passing a bill to allow civil unions, but same-sex couples sued again, in Superior Court in Mercer County, arguing that civil unions denied them many benefits, particularly in health care decisions and financial matters.
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 to allow same-sex marriage, but it was vetoed by Christie, a Republican who is considered a leading candidate for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
In his veto, he urged the Legislature to put the issue before voters to decide. The Democratic-led Legislature declined, saying that questions of civil rights should not be subject to referendum.
Legislative leaders have said they will try to override Christie’s veto, which they have until January to do.