New Jersey must allow gay couples to marry starting Oct. 21 because the state's civil union law is unconstitutionally denying federal benefits to same-sex couples, a judge ruled Friday.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson sided almost entirely with a group of same-sex couples and gay rights groups who 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.
"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 a 53-page opinion. Same-sex couples who 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.
By making her order effective more than three weeks from now, the state has time to appeal to a higher court and ask for a delay to the start of same-sex marriage.
Gov. Chris Christie did not immediately say whether he would appeal, but he opposes gay marriage and had his administration defend the state's current policy this far.
"The judge has issued a very thorough and powerful opinion that shows the correctness under the constitution of our claims," said Hayley Gorenberg, a Lambda Legal lawyer who prepared the lawsuit. "It shows the deep error the state's been making in refusing to let people marry on an equal basis."
Thirteen states now recognize same-sex marriages, including the entire Northeast except for Pennsylvania and New Jersey.