A New Jersey judge ruled that the state is violating it’s own constitution by not recognizing same sex marriage.
On Friday, Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that with the end of DOMA earlier this summer and the subsequent recognition of gay marriage by the federal government, New Jersey is violating it’s own state constitution by not doing the same. Judge Jacobson agreed with the argument of the lawyers from gay rights groups that “the state is now blocking citizens from receiving federal benefits,” by allowing civil unions but not marriage.
The federal government does not recognize civil unions as being equal to marriage, therefore same-sex couples in NJ who work for the federal government but have entered into a civil union instead of a marriage are not eligible for benefits as a married couple. The same problem applies to the private sector when considering programs like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and same-sex couples. The ruling does not overturn the Civil Union law which the state Supreme Court legalized in 2006, but instead asserts that same-sex couples must also have the right to marry if they so chose.
The Judge wrote in her ruling:
The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts: civil union partners who are federal employees living in New Jersey are ineligible for marital rights with regard to the federal pension system, all civil union partners who are employees working for businesses to which the Family and Medical Leave Act applies may not rely on its statutory protections for spouses, and civil union couples may not access the federal tax benefits that married couples enjoy.
And if the trend of federal agencies deeming civil union partners ineligible for benefits continues, plaintiffs will suffer even more, while their opposite-sex New Jersey counterparts continue to receive federal marital benefits for no reason other than the label placed upon their relationships by the State. This unequal treatment requires that New Jersey extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution as interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Lewis. Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution.
The Judge also countered the state’s arguments that it was not responsible for the federal government “choosing not to recognize civil unions for federal marriage benefits.” In fact, she held the state accountable specifically for creating a “separate-but-equal status” for same-sex couples. She wrote:
The reality of the deprivations faced by plaintiffs is that the State has indeed played a role in plaintiffs’ alleged constitutional harms. By statutorily creating two distinct labels — marriage for opposite-sex couples and civil unions for same-sex couples — New Jersey civil union partners are excluded from certain federal benefits that legally married same-sex couples are able to enjoy.
Consequently, it is not the federal government acting alone that deprives plaintiffs of federal marriage benefits — it is the federal government incorporating a state domestic relations structure to make its determinations, and it is that state structure that plaintiffs challenge in this motion. That structure may not have been illegal at the time it was created — indeed, the parallel marriage/civil union statutory scheme was specifically sanctioned in advance by Lewis — but it was certainly an “action” of the State.
It is expected that the decision will be appealed, Gov. Christie has made it clear that he is in opposition to marriage equality. First the ruling must be appealed in an intermediate court, and it will then move on to the state Supreme Court.
If the decision is not stayed, the ruling will go into effect on October 21, 2013 and will make New Jersey the 14th state in the US to recognize same-sex marriage.
Photo: AP File/ Mel Evans