New Jersey is unconstitutionally denying federal benefits to gay couples and must allow them to marry, a judge ruled Friday.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson sided almost entirely with a group of same-sex couples and gay rights groups that sued the state in July, days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of a law that blocked the federal government from granting benefits to gay couples.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican in the midst of a reelection campaign and a possible 2016 presidential contender, said through a spokesman Friday that he plans to appeal the decision, which he says should be determined by a popular vote rather than a court.
The judge made the ruling effective Oct. 21, giving Christie time to appeal and likely ask a court to delay implementation of her order.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor “has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters on the issue of marriage equality.”
In 2012, New Jersey lawmakers passed a law to allow gay marriage, but Christie vetoed it.
New Jersey allows same-sex couples to enter into civil unions that give them some of the same legal protections as married couples, but the judge said the two labels — marriage for opposite-sex couples and civil unions for same-sex couples — exclude gay couples “from certain federal benefits that legally married same-sex couples are able to enjoy.”
Same-sex couples that include a federal employee, those who want to use the federal Family Medical Leave Act, or those who file joint federal tax returns are being hurt by the state’s recognition of civil unions but not gay marriage, she wrote.
Lambda Legal lawyer Hayley Gorenberg, who prepared the lawsuit, said the judge “has issued a very thorough and powerful opinion that shows . . .the deep error the state’s been making in refusing to let people marry on an equal basis.”
One of the plaintiffs, Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, said she and her partner of 24 years, Karen Nicholson-McFadden, were trying to absorb the news.
“I want to shout from the rooftops, but I just have to keep myself in check,” said Marcye Nicholson-McFadden of Aberdeen, as she braced for the expected appeal.
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, one of the state’s social conservative groups, criticized the ruling.
“For our state, essentially, this is judicial activism again, one judge implementing same-sex marriage on New Jersey,” he said.
Thirteen states recognize same-sex marriage, including the entire Northeast except for Pennsylvania and New Jersey.