Same-sex weddings in New Jersey might begin as soon as Monday after the state's highest court on Friday unanimously upheld a lower court order that called for gay marriages to begin on that day.
Technically, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected a state request to stay a lower court ruling that ordered New Jersey to recognize same-sex marriages. Gov. Chris Christie's administration is appealing that decision and sought to delay the marriages during the process.
The high court did not rule on the issue itself, which remains on appeal with oral arguments scheduled for early next year. But in its 20-page ruling, the court made it clear that the state's desire to wait did not pass constitutional muster.
"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 court said in an opinion by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. "The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative."
Christie, considered a possible GOP presidential contender in 2016, favors civil unions and believes that the same-sex marriage decision should be made by New Jersey voters. He accepted Friday's ruling.
"The Supreme Court has made its determination," said Christie's press secretary, Michael Drewniak, in a statement emailed to reporters. "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."
Garden State Equality, a civil rights group that was one of the plaintiffs in the case, praised the ruling that backed its position.
"Today the New Jersey Supreme Court has stood on the side of equality and refused to delay the freedom to marry. We have been fighting an uphill battle for the dignity of marriage for years and we are finally within sight of the summit. However, this is not the time to rest, it is the time to recommit, it is the time to pull out all the stops. We have to continue to push because we are in the fight of our lives," it said.
The ruling in New Jersey is the latest in the legal battles set off when the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The federal move shifted the battle for same-sex marriage to the state court level. Legal fights are pending in several arenas including North Carolina and Utah.
In Friday's opinion, Justice Rabner wrote that the state has not shown that it is likely to prevail in the case. But the constitutional issue of equal rights was more important to the court.
"When a party presents a clear case of unequal treatment, and asks the court to vindicate constitutionally protected rights, a court may not sidestep its obligation to rule for an indefinite amount of time," he wrote. "Under these circumstances, courts do not have the option to defer."
Rabner also rejected the state's argument to wait on deciding whether to lift the stay until the issue itself was decided. "We can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process unfolds."
What happens next is a bit unclear. Those seeking to marry in New Jersey face a 72-hour waiting period between the initial application for license and the ceremony. Garden State Equality said it was seeking judges who could waive the waiting period.
Still, some municipalities were already making plans to offer ceremonies as soon as 12:01 a.m. Monday, replicating scenes that have unfolded in other states as they have allowed same-sex marriage. Thirteen other states, including most in the Northeast, allow gay marriage.
Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, backed the court's ruling but chided Christie.
"I praise this decision -- and I welcome marriage equality to New Jersey starting on Monday. It's yet another win for equal protection under the law," she said in a prepared statement. "New Jersey could have had marriage equality already if it wasn't for Gov. Christie, who has done everything he could to prevent this from happening, including wasting money and time continuing this court battle."