New Jersey’s system of civil unions for same-sex couples is unconstitutional, a state judge ruled on Friday.
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.
The federal government and federal agencies have been seeking to answer that question since June. At least so far, the answer has been no, civil unions are not recognized by the federal government as marriages for purposes of federal marriage benefits.
Judge Jacobson noted that gay rights activists might have filed suit against the federal government to force it to adopt a broader definition of marriage.
But she said they were also entitled to sue in New Jersey to overturn a state legislative roadblock that was now preventing same-sex civil union couples from being treated equally with married couples in New Jersey.
A coalition of same-sex rights groups called Garden State Equality and six same-sex couples and their children filed their motion within days of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.
They argued that the New Jersey Constitution guarantees that they be treated equally with married couples in the state. Their plight could be resolved by exchanging two words for one word – civil union for marriage.
The judge agreed.
“Following the [US Supreme Court’s DOMA decision] and the subsequent implementation of that decision by several federal agencies, same-sex couples are only afforded the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex married couples if they are married,” the judge said in her decision.
“Since New Jersey currently denies marriage to same-sex couples, same-sex civil union partners in New Jersey are ineligible for many federal marital benefits,” she said. “The parallel legal structures created by the New Jersey Legislature therefore no longer provide same-sex couples with equal access to the rights and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.”
Judge Jacobson said that the current inequality “offends” the New Jersey Constitution, violates equal treatment mandated by the state high court, “and is not compatible with a reasonable conception of basic human dignity.”
She added: “Any doctrine urging caution in constitutional adjudication is overcome but such a clear denial of equal treatment.”
State officials are expected to appeal and seek a stay of the judge’s Oct. 21 marriage order.
Gay rights groups hailed the decision as an important step forward.
“We’ve won a great victory today, and there’s no turning back,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality.
“This news is thrilling,” added Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, which filed the lawsuit.
“We argued that limiting lesbians and gay men to civil union is unfair and unconstitutional, and now the Court has agreed,” she said in a statement.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, praised the ruling. “Today’s court decision affirms what loving and committed couples in New Jersey have known all along: civil union is no substitute for the protections and dignity of marriage,” he said.
“Now that civil unions have been proven unconstitutional in the court of law, it’s time for the Legislature to act quickly,” he said.
He said his group and others would be working to assemble the votes needed to override Governor Christie’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation.