HADDONFIELD, N.J. — Same-sex marriages can begin within days in New Jersey, after the state’s highest court ruled unanimously Friday to uphold an order that they must start Monday, and to deny a delay sought by Governor Chris Christie’s administration.
The ruling puts New Jersey on the cusp of becoming the 14th state — and the third most-populous among them — to allow same-sex marriage. The advocacy group Freedom to Marry said that as of Monday, one-third of Americans will live in a place where same-sex marriage is legal.
‘‘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 court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. ‘‘The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative.’’
A judge on a lower court ruled last month that New Jersey must recognize same-sex marriage, and set Monday as the date to allow weddings. Christie, a Republican who is considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, appealed the decision and asked for the start date to be put on hold while it was pending.
A spokesman for Christie said he will comply with the ruling, though he doesn’t like it.
‘‘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,’’ spokesman Michael Drewniak said.
Same-sex marriage is being debated elsewhere. Oregon has begun recognizing same-sex weddings performed out of state, and voters probably will get a chance next year to repeal the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. The Hawaii Legislature also soon could take up a bill to legalize same-sex unions, while a similar measure has passed the Illinois Senate but not the House. Lawsuits challenging gay marriage bans are pending in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
New Jersey’s top court agreed last week to hear the appeal of the lower-court ruling. Oral arguments are expected Jan. 6 or 7.
In Friday’s opinion, Rabner wrote that the state has not shown it is likely to prevail in the case, though it did present some reasons not to have same-sex marriage move forward now. ‘‘But when a party presents a clear case of unequal treatment, and asks the court to vindicate constitutionally protected rights, a court may not sidestep its obligation to rule for an indefinite amount of time,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Under these circumstances, courts do not have the option to defer.’’
Rabner also rejected the state’s argument that it was in the public interest not to allow marriages until the court rules on the issue, writing, “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.’’
For those opposed to gay marriage, denying the request to delay was troubling.
‘‘In what universe does it make sense to let the question at hand be answered before it’s asked or argued?’’ Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said in a letter Friday to members.
On Thursday, some communities started accepting applications for marriage licenses from same-sex couples so that they would pass the 72-hour waiting period by 12:01 a.m. Monday.
‘‘It’s a great day to be gay in New Jersey,’’ said Amy Quinn, a member of the City Council in Asbury Park who is planning to marry Heather Jensen, her partner of 10 years, on Monday.
The court did not address the question of what the status of the marriages would be if it later decides the state does not have to grant them.
Same-sex marriage has been the subject of a battle in the state’s courts and Legislature for a decade. There has been a flurry of movements in both venues since the US Supreme Court in June invalidated parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.