Lawyers for the couples, represented by gay-rights groups Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal, said the couples would be denied more than 1,000 federal benefits for which they should qualify after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June as unconstitutional. Couples who live in New Jersey, which legalized same-sex civil unions in 2007, would not be eligible for those federal benefits unless they had marriage licenses.
“The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts,” Jacobson wrote in her ruling. “This unequal treatment requires that New Jersey extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution.”
The state legislature, controlled by Democrats, passed legislation earlier this year to legalize gay marriage. But Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed that bill, arguing that voters should decide whether gay couples should be granted the right to legally marry in the state. Democrats had hinted they were getting closer to the number of votes they needed to override Christie’s veto in a special session later this year.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, a Christie spokesman hinted that an appeal would be forthcoming.
“Governor 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. Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak wrote in an email.
Democratic-led legislatures have rushed to legalize same-sex marriages in several states in recent years; Hawaii legislators will return for a special session later this year to overturn that state’s ban on gay nuptials. New Jersey will be the 14th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex couples to legally marry.
But in states where Republicans who oppose gay marriage control at least one lever of government, gay-rights activists have increasingly relied on the courts. After the Supreme Court ruling, couples in states as red as Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas have sued for the right to have their unions legally recognized.
Update: A previous version incorrectly stated the number of states that allow same-sex marriage. New Jersey would be the 14th state to allow gay marriage.