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Chris Christie tries to block marriage equality in New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants to block the state's upcoming legalization of same-sex marriage.
Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Trenton, N.J. on Sept. 18, 2013.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants to block the state's upcoming legalization of same-sex marriage.

Interim state Attorney General John Jay Hoffman said in a letter to the state Supreme Court on Monday that the Christie adminstration would seek a stay on the Superior Court's ruling. If granted, the ruling may postpone marriage equality from kicking into effect on October 21. Hoffman also expressed a wish to bypass appellate courts and take the issue directly to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that New Jersey's civil union laws did not provide LGBT individuals the same rights as married couples.

"The court, the legislature, and a super-majority of New Jerseyans all support the freedom to marry, but the governor seems intent on blocking New Jersey's path to fairness, adding more delay now with his decision to appeal the trial court's clear ruling," Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, told MSNBC. "The New Jersey Supreme Court should swiftly take and affirm the marriage ruling, and should let couples begin marrying Oct. 21, as the trial court ordered."

Christie's move to appeal is just the latest step in his back-and-forth with gay rights advocates over the issue of same-sex marriage. Back in February, Christie vetoed a bill passed by the New Jersey legislature that legalized same-sex marriage. Personally against marriage equality, the governor was willing to let the matter go to a state referendum in November, yet unwilling to let "an issue of this magnitude and importance" be decided by elected officials.

Instead, Christie appointed an official to oversee same-sex couples' complaints that civil union laws were not affording them all the legal rights and benefits of married couples. For gay rights advocates, this measure did not go far enough to ensure equality.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act gave the same-sex marriage movement in New Jersey new life. The majority's ruling in that case, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, stated that same-sex married couples deserved the same benefits as any other married couple, but was confined to legal marriages. This primed New Jersey for the challenge to its system that led to Judge Jacobson's ruling Friday.

The other factor in the ruling was a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling from 2006 (Lewis v. Harris), which required the state to extend all the rights of heterosexual unions to same sex unions, but stopped short of legalizing same-sex marriage.

"The issue of whether the state must act to change its statutory structure for civil unions and marriages is purely a legal one that depends upon the interaction of the Windsor [DOMA] decision with the mandates established by the New Jersey Supreme court in Lewis," wrote Jacobson in her 53-page opinion, illuminating the crux of the issue.

The plaintiffs in the case, six same-sex couples represented by Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal, said that Windsor and Lewis don't work in sync for gay couples. As reported, over 1,000 tax and inheritance benefits extended by the DOMA decision to same-sex married couples were withheld from those couples in New Jersey, trapped behind civil union laws.

The attorneys argued that such civil union laws made same-sex couples "second class" citizens, and Judge Jacobson agreed. "Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey constitution," she wrote.

Though they don't agree with Christie's appeal, New Jersey Democrats urged the state Supreme Court to fast-track the case, per the administration's wishes. If the court decides quickly in favor of Jacobson's ruling, same-sex couples won't have to wait longer than October 21st to enjoy full marriage equality.

It's unclear to what degree Gov. Christie's repeated moves against same-sex marriage are politically motivated, intended to bolster his conservative credentials.

"Within the Republican universe, he's actually pretty far out there already on gay marriage, saying he wants a referendum and that he'd honor the result if voters pass it," said MSNBC's Steve Kornacki. "In terms of positioning for the 2016 GOP race, that alone puts him on shaky ground, so if a court moves to legalize it, he risks giving opponents on the right ammunition if he does anything but challenge it."