How New Jersey Used the DOMA Ruling to Legalize Gay Marriage

Could other states do the same?

This summer, advocates for gay marriage in New Jersey gather outside the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., saying they'll press their case after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 27, 2013, 12:25 p.m.

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.

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