August 15, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
New Jersey judge urged to allow same-sex marriage

(Blade file photo by Michael Key).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A New Jersey judge on Thursday heard arguments as to whether the state should extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Associated Press reported Assistant New Jersey Attorney General Kevin Jesperson told Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson during a hearing in Trenton the federal government should recognize civil unions as marriages for Social Security and other federal benefits. Jesperson said the six gay and lesbian couples who filed a same-sex marriage lawsuit in 2011 should sue the federal agencies – and not the state of New Jersey – that don’t recognize their relationships.

Larry Lustberg, an attorney for Garden State Equality, an LGBT rights group, told Jacobson the state can resolve any potential inequalities same-sex couples face by allowing them to marry.

“It is the state, not the federal government that is the source of the problem here,” Lustberg said as the AP reported.

The hearing took place less than two months after the U.S. Supreme Court found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8.

Neighboring New York and Delaware is among the 13 states and D.C. in which same-sex couples can marry. New Jersey and a handful of other states allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

The American Civil Liberties Union in neighboring Pennsylvania last month filed a lawsuit that challenges the state’s statutory ban on nuptials for gays and lesbians.

The federal government recognizes the marriages of gays and lesbians who legally tied the knot as a result of the DOMA decision, although same-sex couples’ ability to receive Social Security and other federal benefits depends upon whether the state in which they live will recognize their unions.

Christie: Couples in civil unions eligible for federal marriage benefits

Governor Chris Christie in 2012 vetoed a bill that would have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in the state.

Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman earlier this month argued in a brief he filed with the court that same-sex couples who have entered into civil unions in the state are eligible to receive federal benefits under the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA decision. The Christie administration criticized the White House for withholding federal marriage benefits to gays and lesbians in civil unions.

“[Any] federal policy or directive or interpretation of Windsor that denies benefits to civil union partners violates the due process and equal protection provisions of the United States Constitution as well as New Jersey’s sovereignty rights,” the brief states.

LGBT rights advocates defended their lawsuit after the hearing.

“The state’s discrimination is all that bars same-sex couples from the full array of federal protections for their families,” Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg said. “New Jersey can fix this — and it should. The buck stops right here.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA was historic for the nation, but out of reach for us here in New Jersey,” Cindy Meneghin of Butler, N.J., who, along with her partner of Maureen Kilian and their two children, are among the plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage lawsuit. “We won’t give up until we have the freedom to marry and the opportunity to share that security and joy with our family.”

The AP reported Jacobson will not rule on the issue until at least next month.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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