New Jersey can begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on Monday, the state high court ruled Friday, as the justices prepare to hear a case on the constitutionality of the state’s law banning same-sex unions.
The New Jersey Supreme Court will still examine the issue of gay marriage in court proceedings in a future hearing, but Friday declined to delay the start of gay marriages, which were ordered to begin Oct. 21 by a lower court judge.
A leading traditional marriage group immediately criticized the decision, accusing the court of short-circuiting the democratic process in the state.
“It is extremely disappointing that the New Jersey Supreme Court has allowed the ruling of an activist judge to stand pending its appeal through the court system,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
But gay rights groups were ecstatic at the news.
“Pop the champagne — love and fairness are winning over discrimination and injustice,” said Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal, one of the groups that has been pushing for gay marriage in the courts.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration had asked the state court to maintain the status quo on marriage while the lawsuit, Garden State Equality v. Dow, proceeded.
However, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld a ruling by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson that said gay couples were injured by being limited to state-licensed civil unions, not marriages.
Federal benefits are now typically given only to gay couples who are legally married by a state.
“The state has advanced a number of arguments, but none of them overcome this reality: Same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today,” the high court ruled Friday. “The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative.”
Oral arguments in the gay-marriage case are expected Jan. 6 or 7.
In the meantime, the state government will have to allow weddings and work quickly through some logistical issues: Are gay and lesbian couples that have wed legally elsewhere are now automatically considered married in New Jersey? Does the Monday deadline apply to when marriage licenses must be issued, or when ceremonies can take place? What should officials do about the three-day waiting period between getting a license and marrying?
A state lawmaker asked the state attorney general’s office Thursday whether the 72-hour waiting period would apply for same-sex couples seeking to get married Monday. Several New Jersey towns also started accepting marriage-license applications from same-sex couples, in case the court agreed that the weddings could proceed.
Despite the uncertainty, gay couples in the state — some of whom have been together for decades — have been planning to have ceremonies as soon as they would be recognized by the state government.
Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio said he’s planning to lead the state’s first legally recognized same-sex wedding. Mr. DelVecchio also performed the ceremony in 2007 when the same couple became among New Jersey’s first to be granted a civil union.
Whether gay couples should have the right to marry in New Jersey has been the subject of a battle in the state’s courts and legislature over the past decade. There has been a flurry of movements in both venues since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key parts of a federal law that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions.
Since then, gay rights advocates have asked New Jersey judges to force the state to recognize same-sex marriage, arguing that the state’s current policy of granting gay couples civil unions but not marriage licenses amounts to denying those couples federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits and the right to file tax returns jointly.
Since July, gay rights groups have also engaged in an intense campaign aimed at persuading lawmakers to override Mr. Christie’s 2012 veto of a bill that would have allowed gay marriage. To get an override, the legislature must act by Jan. 14.
Thirteen states, including most in the Northeast, now recognize gay marriage.
Mr. Christie says he favors civil unions and same-sex marriage is something that should be approved or rejected by voters, not the state’s judges or lawmakers.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.