Same-sex couples will officially be able to get married in the Garden State on Monday.
In a major blow to Gov. Chris Christie, whose administration has staunchly opposed efforts to legalize marriage equality, the state Supreme Court on Friday unanimously ruled that New Jersey must allow gay couples to marry beginning on Oct. 21. Christie's administration had previously sought to delay granting marriage licences while it appealed a ruling opening the door for gay couples to marry. The state's highest court will hear arguments in the case next year.
In a statement, Gov. Christie’s Press Secretary Michael Drewniak said the Republican governor disagreed with the ruling, but would comply:
"The Supreme Court has made its determination. While the governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the State of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order of the Superior Court under the applicable law."
According to NBC's Pete Williams, the court also strongly indicated that it would rule against Christie's administration and declare the ban on same-sex marriage in violation of the state's constitution.
“Civil-union partners in New Jersey today do not receive the same benefits as married same-sex couples when it comes to family and medical leave, Medicare, tax and immigration matters, military and veterans’ affairs, and other areas,” the court said Friday.
Local mayors had directed clerks to begin accepting applications for marriage licenses from same-sex couples on Thursday. State law requires a 72-hour waiting period for a marriage application to go through.
“In order for us to be ready, we have to start the process,” Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna said to msnbc.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was elected this week to fill the late Sen. Lautenberg’s seat, plans on marrying several same-sex couples at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. His spokesman, James Allen, released a statement shortly after Friday's ruling:
"For more than seven years, Mayor Booker has refused all requests to officiate New Jersey marriages because gay couples have been denied that equal right. After today's wonderful news, Mayor Booker is excited to marry both straight and gay couples in City Hall on Monday morning beginning at 12:01 a.m."
The Oct. 21 deadline was set by Judge Mary Jacobson, who last month ruled the state was in violation of a 2006 state Supreme Court order requiring that gay couples be given the same rights and privileges granted to heterosexual spouses. The legislature passed a law allowing civil unions in response.
In the wake of a June U.S. Supreme Court order striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, six same-sex couples challenging New Jersey’s marriage laws argued that gay couples no longer received the same level of equality, because federal benefits were given only to those in legal marriages, not civil unions.
The Christie administration has argued that it’s not the state’s fault if the federal government does not extend spousal benefits to couples in civil unions. Lawyers representing the state asked Judge Jacobson for a stay on her ruling while a higher court considered its appeal, but she refused. Christie’s administration then issued an emergency appeal to the state Supreme Court, which said it would hear arguments in January, 2014.
Christie believes the issue should be decided at the ballot box, not in court.
“Governor Christie has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters on the issue of marriage equality and called for it to be on the ballot this Election Day,” his office said last week. “Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.”
According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, a majority of likely voters--61%--said Christie should drop his appeal, and allow New Jersey to become the 15th state (including Washington, D.C.) to legalize marriage equality.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin applauded Friday’s decision in a statement.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court has sent a momentous and vital message to the entire country,” he said. “No government should stand in the way of committed and loving couples seeking to marry. And I have no doubt that when this case is resolved on the merits, marriage equality will come to the Garden State permanently.”