September 27, 2013 at 3:34 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
New Jersey court rules in favor of marriage equality
National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry (image via wikimedia).

A New Jersey court ruled on Friday in favor of marriage equality on the basis that the state’s current system of civil unions precludes gay couples from receiving the federal benefits of marriage.

In the 53-page decision, Judge Mary Jacobson of the New Jersey Superior Court grants summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs, saying same-sex couples must be able to marry under the equal protection guarantee provided under the state constitution. The ruling cites Lewis v. Harris, an earlier decision that led to the creation of civil unions in New Jersey to bring equality to gay couples.

“The equality demanded by Lewis v. Harris now requires that same-sex couples in New Jersey be allowed to marry,” the decision states. “As a result, this court will grant plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and will order the state to permit any and all same-sex couples, who otherwise satisfy the requirements for civil marriage, to marry in New Jersey.”

If the state doesn’t appeal the ruling, the decision states New Jersey has until Oct. 21 to start distributing marriage licenses to gay couples. The office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who opposes same-sex marriage. didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on whether an appeal would happen.

But according to the Associated Press, Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesperson, suggested on Friday the governor intends to appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“Gov. 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,” Drewniak was quoted as saying. “Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.”

The court makes heavy use of the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act. Now that the federal benefits marriage are beginning to flow to married gay couples as the result of that decision, the New Jersey court reasons that civil unions are insufficient because the DOMA decision doesn’t apply to them.

“The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts: civil union partners who are federal employees living in New Jersey are ineligible for martial rights with regard to the federal pension system, all civil union partners who are employees working for businesses to which the Family and Medical Leave Act applies may not rely on its statutory protections for spouses, and civil union couples may not access the federal tax benefits that married couples enjoy,” the decision states.

The decision reached in the case, known as Garden State Equality et al. v. Dow et al, means New Jersey is set to become the 14th state in the country to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The court reaches the decision as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Lambda Legal on behalf of Garden State Equality and six plaintiffs couples following a veto of marriage bill by Christie. The lawsuit alleged that civil unions — established in 2007 as a result of the decision in Lewis v. Harris — provided inadequate protections to gay couples.

Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s deputy legal director, said the court decision is “thrilling” because it enables gay couples to receive the federal benefits of marriage following the Supreme Court decision against DOMA.

“The end of DOMA made the freedom to marry even more urgent than before because the state stood between these families and a host of federal protections, benefits, rights and responsibilities,” Gorenberg said. “With this ruling, our clients and all of New Jersey’s same-sex couples are at the threshold of the freedom to marry.”

LGBT advocates had been moving forward with plans to override Christie’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation as litigation was proceeding in state court.

Earlier this month, according to the group New Jersey United for Marriage, supporters of same-sex marriage picked up three new votes in favor of same-sex marriage: Assembly members Wayne DeAngelo, Gabriela Mosquera and Holly Schepesi, a Republican, bringing them closer to the two-thirds vote needed in both chambers of the legislature to override Christie’s veto.

Troy Stevenson, executive director for Garden State Equality, said the court decision represents an incredible victory and marriage equality will come to New Jersey one way or the other.

“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,” Stevenson said. “We just won the first round through litigation and we will continue to fight until we guarantee marriage for all New Jersey couples.”

The decision from the New Jersey court wasn’t the only victory on Friday for supporters of same-sex marriage. On the same day in Illinois, the Circuit Court of Cook County, Chancery Division, allowed another consolidated lawsuit known as Darby v. Orr to proceed in state court. That litigation was filed by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union in May 2012.

Assembly member Reed Gusciora, a Democrat and gay lawmaker, commended the court for its decision and said it affirms civil unions are inadequate for same-sex couples.

“The federal government has recognized this,” Gusciora said. “The New Jersey Legislature recognized this. The courts now recognize this. It’s time for the Governor to stop standing in the way of justice and allow this order to be upheld.”

Judge Sophia Hall allowed the case to proceed on the basis of claims that the state law prohibiting same-sex marriage in Illinois denies gay couples equal protection and due process under the state constitution. However, she dismissed claims the same-sex marriage ban violates the state’s constitution’s equal protection on account of sex, the right to privacy and special legislation clause.

Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, said her organization is “pleased” the couples represented in the case will have their day in court.

“Illinois’ marriage ban not only brands these couples and their children as inferior under state law, but now that the federal law known as DOMA has been struck down by the Supreme Court, Illinois is the only thing standing between these families and full federal respect for their relationships,” Taylor said. “Loving same-sex couples in Illinois can’t wait any longer for the freedom to marry. We’re excited to get to the next step and make the case for equality.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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