A New Jersey judge ruled Friday to legalize gay marriage in the state, ordering state officials to start officiating same-sex marriages next month. The decision may be short-lived, as Gov. Chris Christie, who has long said he would veto any gay-marriage bill, is likely to seek an appeal. But the argument behind the ruling could provide individuals outside of the Garden State with a model for petitioning their own state governments for marriage equality.
Two court decisions lie at the heart of the case. The first is this summer's Supreme Court ruling that found the Defense of Marriage Act — which prevented the federal government from extending benefits to same-sex marriages — unconstitutional. The second is Lewis v. Harris, a 2006 decision by New Jersey's highest court that ruled civil unions must be afforded the same legal rights as other married couples. What both of the decisions have in common is that they ruled same-sex couples were entitled to certain rights and benefits afforded to opposite-sex married couples.
The case, it seems, all comes down to language. Basically, since the federal government extends rights to married same-sex couples the same way New Jersey's state government extends rights to same-sex couples in civil unions, those unmarried individuals should have the right to marry. Otherwise, New Jersey's civil union law is blocking citizens from receiving federal benefits.
"If the trend of federal agencies deeming civil union partners ineligible for benefits continues, plaintiffs will suffer even more, while their opposite-sex New Jersey counterparts continue to receive federal marital benefits for no reason other than the label placed upon their relationships by the state," Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson wrote in her decision.
Similar legislation in Colorado, Hawaii, and Illinois provides civil unions with the same rights, benefits, and protections as same-sex married couples. Legislation that recognizes domestic partnerships, granting them similar rights and benefits as same-sex marriages, exists in California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin as well as the District of Columbia. It's too soon to tell if Friday's ruling will set in motion the legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey, but it may spur other parts of the country to examine their own versions of Lewis.