A New Jersey judge on Friday ordered state officials to allow same-sex couples to marry starting Oct. 21, saying the current civil union system unfairly deprives them of federal benefits available to married couples.
Judge Mary Jacobson in Mercer County Superior Court in Trenton issued the order, the first to strike down a state ban on gay marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to invalidate the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
A spokesman for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie indicated the state would appeal the ruling, saying the state's Supreme Court should make the "constitutional determination" regarding the legality of same-sex marriage. He did not say whether the state would seek a stay to stop the ruling from taking effect.
Last year, Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill passed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature. Lawmakers have until the end of the year to override the veto, but it is not clear that the Democratic majority has gathered enough votes. Christie, who is said to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, has called for a popular referendum to decide the issue.
If Jacobson's decision stands, New Jersey would become the 14th state to permit gay marriage. It is also legal in the District of Columbia.
The ruling highlights, once again, the shifting legal and social landscape when it comes to gay marriage. Polls have shown increasing public support for same-sex marriage and civil rights groups have prevailed in a number of courthouses across the country. Ten years ago, no U.S. states permitted gay marriage.
New Jersey's civil union system was installed after the state's Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual married couples. That decision led the state legislature to pass a civil unions law meant to grant same-sex couples equal rights.
Opponents of same-sex marriage reacted angrily to the ruling, saying such an emotionally fraught issue should be left up to the voters in the state.
"It's another example of judicial activism on steroids. It's absurd," said Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that believes marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, finding that it unlawfully denied benefits such as tax breaks to gay married couples that are available for heterosexual couples.
That prompted the New Jersey plaintiffs - who had already challenged the state's civil unions law in court - to argue that civil unions could no longer guarantee equal treatment.
In a 53-page opinion, Jacobson agreed, stating that New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions are now missing out on federal benefits they would otherwise be entitled to if allowed to marry as a result of the Supreme Court's action.
"These couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the state," she wrote.
The state constitution's guarantee of equal protection thus requires the legalization of gay marriage, Jacobson said.
"The Supreme Court opened the door to federal benefits, and now the Court in New Jersey has ruled that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry," Hayley Gorenberg, a lawyer with Lambda Legal who represented the New Jersey couples, said in a statement. "This news is thrilling."