Judges in New Jersey and Illinois handed gay marriage supporters favorable decisions Friday, with one ruling setting Oct. 21 as the date when gay marriages can commence in New Jersey.
"The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts," Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said in her ruling.
The federal government now recognizes same-sex married couples for federal benefits, Judge Jacobson wrote. Since New Jersey does not, however, recognize couples in civil unions, couples there "cannot access many federal marital benefits," she said. Therefore, "this court holds that New Jersey's denial of marriage to same-sex couples now violates" the state Constitution.
New Jersey officials have until Oct. 21 to respond to the ruling in Garden State Equality v. Dow.
Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed a bill to perform gay marriages; New Jersey lawmakers have several more months to attempt to override the veto.
A response from the Christie administration wasn't immediately available Friday. But the state has argued that New Jersey's civil union law is legal, and federal agencies should respect New Jersey's domestic-relationship laws when it confers benefits to same-sex couples.
If that doesn't happen, the plaintiffs' quarrel is with the federal government, not New Jersey, Kevin Jespersen of the New Jersey Attorney General's office argued in August before Judge Jacobson.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the federal government began recognizing the legal state marriages of gay couples. Lambda Legal asked for an emergency ruling on behalf of Garden State Equality and six gay couples and their children, saying because they were only allowed to be in civil unions, they were likely to be discriminated against.
"We argued that limiting lesbians and gay men to civil union is unfair and unconstitutional, and now the court has agreed," Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal's deputy legal director, said Friday.
"Today's court decision affirms what loving and committed couples in New Jersey have known all along: civil union is no substitute for the protections and dignity of marriage," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, a judge ruled Friday that a gay marriage lawsuit can go forward, but on fewer claims.
Cook County Circuit Judge Sophia H. Hall dismissed three of the five claims in a lawsuit filed by 25 gay couples that seeks to overturn an Illinois law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
But Judge Hall declined to dismiss the case, and arguments will be heard on whether the 1996 Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act violates the state Constitution's clauses guaranteeing due process and equal protection.
Although the court dismissed some of the claims, "the plaintiffs can obtain everything they seek — a declaration that the marriage ban is unconstitutional and an order requiring the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — through the claims that remain," said Lambda Legal, one of the groups representing the gay couples. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois also represents some of the couples.
Illinois state officials have declined to defend the law, saying it is unconstitutional. However, five Illinois county clerks stepped up instead. Their request to dismiss the case was denied by Judge Hall on Friday.
One of the clerks' lawyers predicted that their arguments about marriage will be upheld.
"The overwhelming weight of legal authority holds that defining marriage between one man and one woman is constitutional, and we are confident that Illinois marriage laws will ultimately be upheld," Paul Linton, special counsel with the Thomas More Society, said Friday.
Separately, opponents and supporters of gay marriage in Illinois are planning huge rallies around Oct. 22, when state lawmakers come back for a special session and are likely to consider a bill to begin performing gay marriages.
In February, the Illinois Senate passed such a bill and it was expected to be easily passed in the House as well. But the bill stalled, due to vocal opposition from a coalition of black pastors, religious leaders and traditional-values groups.
Illinois lawmakers enacted a civil-union law in 2011 as a way to provide the rights and responsibilities of marriage same-sex couples. However, gay rights groups — as evidenced in New Jersey — dismiss civil-union and domestic-partnership laws as relegating gay couples to second-class status.
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