It is now official. On Monday, New Jersey became the 14th state to recognize same-sex marriages.
The development adds momentum to a nationwide push by gay-rights activists and supporters seeking to prepare the groundwork for what they hope will be an eventual ruling at the US Supreme Court declaring a constitutional right to marry regardless of sexual orientation.
The surprise action in New Jersey came after Gov. Chris Christie (R) decided to withdraw his appeal of an earlier ruling by a state judge that the New Jersey Constitution requires the state to allow gay men and lesbians to marry rather than to abide in civil unions.
The action ended the state’s appeal at the New Jersey Supreme Court and allowed the lower court ruling to be enforced statewide.
The news was hailed as a historic development by gay-rights activists and supporters. It came shortly after the first of the state’s gay marriages were performed and celebrated.
“At long last, the freedom to marry is now permanently the law of the land in New Jersey,” Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said in statement.
“The marriages of loving, committed couples throughout the Garden State, combined with Governor Christie’s withdrawal of his appeal, is joyous news to New Jerseyans, both gay and non-gay,” Mr. Wolfson said.
“The momentum continues to build nationwide and we are working hard to deliver victories in Hawaii, Illinois, and New Mexico in 2013,” he said.
The state’s appeal was withdrawn by Acting Attorney General John Hoffman in a brief, two-sentence motion filed with the Supreme Court at 8:44 Monday morning.
It read in part: “Please accept this letter as a withdrawal of the appeal in the above referenced matter ....”
It concluded: “Thank you for your assistance and courtesies in this matter.”
A spokesman for Christie told reporters that the change in legal tactics came after state officials assessed the tone of the state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on Friday, upholding an order to allow same-sex marriages to begin immediately on Oct. 21.
Christie, a potential Republican presidential candidate, had vetoed a state law establishing same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Efforts were under way to collect enough votes to override the veto. Christie insisted the issue should be put to a statewide vote.
New Jersey provided civil unions for gay men and lesbians, and the state Supreme Court had ruled in an earlier case that they must be afforded all the rights and privileges enjoyed by opposite-sex married couples.
A group of six same-sex couples and an organization called Garden State Equality filed suit, arguing that civil unions were not equal to marriage.
In June, the US Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted 1,200 federal benefits to marriages between one man and one woman.
The high court said that same-sex couples legally married in their home state could not be treated differently by Congress. But the court did not extend its ruling to those who had entered into civil unions under state law.
Lawyers in New Jersey argued that since the state constitution requires equal treatment of married couples and couples in civil unions, the state was denying civil-union couples access to a range of federal benefits.
The state judge agreed and ordered same-sex marriages to begin Oct. 21.
Christie, a lawyer and former US attorney in New Jersey, directed the state attorney general to appeal the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
On Friday, the court unanimously upheld the judge’s order permitting marriages on Oct. 21. They did so in a forceful decision that left little doubt about how the justices were likely to rule on the merits in the case.
“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,” a spokesman for Christie told reporters.
“The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court,” he said.
The lawyer for the same-sex couples, Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, praised the governor’s decision.
“What a joyous day,” she said.
“It’s done. New Jersey is the 14th state with the freedom to marry, and same-sex couples and their families can celebrate without fear that their rights and dignity will be taken away,” Ms. Gorenberg said in a statement.