The first-ever same-sex marriages in New Jersey took place early this morning – 12:01 a.m. to be exact – when mayors from around the state began officiating marriages for same-sex couples. These marriages conclude the dramatic legal battle for same-sex marriage in New Jersey.
In 2012, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have legalized same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples in New Jersey were left with civil unions, which provide most of the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage conferred by the state, but none of the federal benefits granted to opposite-sex married couples.
In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in U.S. v Windsor, which struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In doing so, the Court declared that the federal government must provide the same benefits to same-sex married couples as it does to heterosexual married couples.
Then, on September 27, 2013, Judge Mary C. Jacobson of the State Superior Court in Mercer County, New Jersey used the Windsor decision as the legal underpinning for her ruling in favor of same-sex couples challenging New Jersey’s civil union law. She found that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage deprived same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits and “is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts.” She ruled that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry, because not doing so deprives them of rights that were guaranteed by the United States Supreme Court in June.
Judge Jacobson stated that the Windsor decision demanded a change in New Jersey. Under her order, same-sex marriages were set to begin today, October 21, 2013.
This marks the first time a court has struck down a state’s refusal to legalize same-sex marriage as a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. With similar lawsuits pending in several states, this could signal other successful challenges across the country.
Governor Chris Christie Attempts to Intervene
Immediately after Jacobsen’s ruling, Governor Christie filed an appeal of her decision and sought an emergency stay of Jacobson’s order pending the appeal. However, on Friday, October 18, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied Christie’s request to put same-sex marriages on hold.
In a unanimous ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court suggested that if the appeal were to come before the Court in January 2014, it would strike down the same-sex marriage ban. “The state has advanced a number of arguments, but none of them overcome this reality: Same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today,” the Court stated. “The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative . . . we can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process unfolds,” the justices said.
In light of the Court’s ruling, two important events occurred today: The very first same-sex marriages were officiated in New Jersey, and Governor Christie withdrew the state’s appeal, which means same-sex marriage is now the law of the land in New Jersey.
Christie’s office issued the following statement:
“Although the Governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.” The statement also assured New Jersey residents that the Governor’s office will implement the law: “The Governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
To learn more about same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues, go to Nolo’s LGBT Law center.