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New Jersey judge orders state to allow gay marriage. Christie vows appeal. (+video)

The judge said New Jersey must allow gay marriage because the federal government isn't extending full and equal benefits to same-sex couples under the state's civil union law.

By Staff writer / September 27, 2013

Alex Nikazmerad of North Plainfield, N.J., shouts at a vehicle passing by while holding a sign in front of First Congregational Church before a rally hosted by Garden State Equality in Montclair, N.J., hours after same-sex marriages were made legal by a state judge, Friday.

Julio Cortez/AP

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Washington

New Jersey’s system of civil unions for same-sex couples is unconstitutional, a state judge ruled on Friday.

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The judge said the state must allow same-sex couples in civil unions to enter into marriages just like opposite-sex couples because the federal government is not extending full and equal benefits to gay couples under New Jersey’s civil union law.

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that in order to rectify the unequal treatment, New Jersey was required to jettison the system of same-sex civil unions enacted in 2006 by the state Legislature in favor of judicially-mandated same-sex marriages.

Judge Jacobson ordered state officials to start allowing same-sex marriages in New Jersey on Oct. 21.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to appeal the decision.

The Republican chief executive, who is waging a reelection campaign and is considered a possible presidential contender, has opposed same-sex marriages in the state and says the issue should be determined by a statewide vote.

In her ruling, Judge Jacobson said her marriage order was necessary to comply with a mandate of the New Jersey Constitution – as interpreted by the state Supreme Court – that same-sex couples in civil unions must be afforded all of the same rights and benefits as are available to opposite-sex married couples in New Jersey.

Lawyers for the state had argued that the actual denial of federal benefits had come as a result of decisions by the Obama administration (which strongly supports same-sex marriage) and various federal agencies – not by the state of New Jersey and its agencies.

They said it was the US government, not the state government, that was denying equal access to federal benefits.

Judge Jacobson rejected the argument.

“The court cannot ignore that the State’s current system of classification assigns to same-sex couples a label distinct from marriage – a label that now directly affects the availability of federal marriage benefits to those couples,” the judge wrote in a 53-page opinion.

The underlying issue arose last June when the US Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court struck down DOMA because it sought to impose a federal definition of marriage on states that had decided to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples under state law.

The 1996 federal law had restricted receipt of some 1,200 federal benefits to married couples comprised of a man and a woman. Same-sex couples legally married under state law were denied the same benefits available to opposite-sex couples married in those same states.

In their ruling in June, the majority justices said DOMA violated equal protection principles by failing to defer to the decisions of the states in deciding for themselves who should be recognized as “married.”

Although it was clear from the decision that same-sex married couples must be afforded equal benefits by the federal government, the decision left unresolved whether those same benefits should also be afforded to same-sex couples who had entered into civil unions.

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