Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Friday that same-sex couples can apply for and receive marriage licenses beginning Oct. 21.
The trial judge found that the earlier New Jersey Supreme Court opinion that led to civil unions in the state had demanded that same-sex couples receive all the same benefits as married couples. After the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision striking down the federal ban on recognizing same-sex couples' marriages, however, civil unions no longer give all the benefits of marriage because those couples are denied federal benefits.
"Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution," Jacobson wrote in her ruling.
In describing the situation that presented the court after the United States v. Windsor ruling striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, Jacobson wrote, "in light of Windsor's mandate that the federal government extend benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples, can the actions by several federal agencies refusing to grant those same rights to civil union partners render them liable for the resulting harm?"
The state argued that the federal government should recognize New Jersey's civil unions for purpose of granting federal benefits, but the court found that argument to be an "attempt to foist all constitutional responsibility for the ineligibility of civil union couples for some federal benefits on the federal government."
Jacobson's final conclusion was, yes, the state is liable for the "resulting harm," writing, "As a result [of the Windsor ruling], New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions are no longer entitled to all of the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex married couples. ... [T]hese couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the State."
The Associated Press reported that New Jersey officials are expected to appeal the decision, a decision later confirmed by a statement from Gov. Chris Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak:
"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. Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination."
Christie's opponent for re-election, Democrat Barbara Buono, said the decision was a "stark reminder that Governor Christie stands on the wrong side of history."
Of her opponent, she said, "At every turn, he has prevented our gay brothers and sisters from enjoying the same rights as other New Jerseyans. He must now make a decision whether to continue to be an obstacle or to be part of the solution."
In a statement, Troy Stevenson, the executive director of Garden State Equality, said, "We have been saying it for months and it stands true today: through litigation or legislation, we will win the dignity of marriage this year. We just won the first round through litigation and we will continue to fight until we guarantee marriage for all New Jersey couples."
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin pushed back against any appeal, "State officials should not appeal this sound decision and no longer stand in the way of loving couples being able to make a lifelong commitment with full state and federal recognition."
[This story was updated as additional information became available, with the final update at 4:45 p.m.]