Supporters of same-sex marriage argued before a state judge in New Jersey on Thursday that the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing such unions required the state to allow them.
The argument was the latest in a lengthy fight in New Jersey, where a court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples should be afforded the same rights and benefits as married couples. The state established civil unions, but a 2008 state commission subsequently found that same-sex couples were being treated as “second-class citizens.”
Advocates have tried to push for same-sex marriage in the state ever since, but found a dedicated opponent in New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a potential presidential candidate in 2016. He vetoed a same-sex marriage bill last year, leaving New Jersey as one of two states in the Northeast to ban gay marriage. (Pennsylvania is the second.)
The Supreme Court’s June decision in United States vs. Windsor, which struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, has given same-sex marriage advocates in New Jersey their best chance yet. Their argument: New Jersey law prevents gay couples in civil unions from receiving the benefits the Supreme Court has said they would be entitled to under federal law, were they married.
“The U.S. Supreme Court gave a huge gift to advocates for same-sex marriage in New Jersey because the decision in the Windsor case gave a very concrete and significant illustration of the way in which civil unions fail to operate the way that marriages do,” said Sally Goldfarb, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden.
The state, however, argued Thursday that the solution was at the federal level. If the federal government does not recognize a civil union as marriage — thus conferring on partners benefits that include Social Security — then the plaintiffs should sue the federal government, not the state, a state representative argued.
The hearing judge, Mary Jacobson, told both sides to deliver more information and said she would not rule before September.
Civil unions, once the only way for same-sex couples to receive benefits, are now fading in prominence. The Rhode Island Legislature in May voted to allow same-sex marriages, replacing the civil unions that had been offered since 2011. In Delaware, where civil unions have been allowed since 2011, the Legislature recently adopted a law that will convert civil unions into marriages.
A court case in Illinois is challenging that state’s ban on gay marriage — currently same-sex couples in Illinois are allowed civil unions.