Six gay couples and their children headed back to a New Jersey courtroom Thursday, hoping that June’s landmark marriage equality rulings would reinvigorate their fight for same-sex marriage.
New Jersey is one of four states that allow civil unions, which entitle gay couples to spousal rights, but stops short of calling those unions “marriage.” The New Jersey state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples could not be denied the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples, so the state legislature passed a law allowing civil unions in response. In 2012, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage throughout the Garden State, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie swiftly vetoed it.
The couples filed suit in 2011, claiming that New Jersey’s marriage laws violated the 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that set a standard of equality for same-sex couples. Now, they argue, New Jersey is even more in the wrong.
Arguments on Thursday focused on the implications of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA,) which defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman for federal purposes. The DOMA ruling cleared the way for same-sex couples who were legally married to receive the same federal benefits given to heterosexual spouses. At issue is whether same-sex couples in civil unions should also receive federal benefits based on the ruling.
Marriage equality advocates argue that the DOMA decision does not apply to civil unions, meaning that those who receive state-level spousal benefits are not entitled to federal-level benefits. By that logic, New Jersey is now in violation of the 2006 state Supreme Court decision requiring that gay couples receive the same benefits as straight ones. The state would have to allow all couples to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, in order to comply with both U.S. and state Supreme Court decisions, they argue.
Christie’s administration disagrees, claiming that the full impact of the DOMA ruling is not yet clear, reports the New York Times. A lawyer for the state said Thursday that it was the federal government’s fault, not the state’s, if couples in civil unions were denied certain federal benefits, reports the Associated Press.
After hearing both arguments Thursday, the judge said she would not issue a ruling before September.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex couples to marry. New Jersey is one of two in the Northeast that does not.