Several states across the country have legalized gay marriage in the wake of the federal government’s repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and New Jersey is next, family lawyers say. Judge Mary Jacobson, of Mercer County, recently ruled that the state must recognize same-sex marriages, because partners in civil unions have been denied federal benefits, which violates the New Jersey Constitution.
In Garden State Equality v. Dow, Jacobson ruled that the repeal of DOMA made it necessary for New Jersey to recognize and legally grant same-sex couples the right to marry in the state. Right now, same-sex couples can enter into a civil union, which does not grant them the same rights that married couples in New Jersey are given. The state legislature legalized civil unions in December of 2006, but there remained a divide between the rights granted to partners in civil unions and heterosexual couples who were legally married.
According to the Domestic Partnership Act, same-sex couples—as well as heterosexual couples aged 62 and older—could share in limited healthcare, inheritance, and property benefits with their partners. These domestic partnerships were limited, however, in that couples could not participate in family leave to care for a sick partner, and all non-state employees were subject to their company’s approval for health insurance and other benefits for their partners.
The Domestic Partnership Act was expanded two years later into the Civil Union Act, in which those in a civil union received more recognized rights under the state laws of New Jersey, but still could not claim the same rights that the federal government granted to heterosexual married couples. Jacobson stated in her decision that, as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, same-sex couples were no longer treated as equals under the New Jersey laws, and that the state needs to legalize their marriage in order to continue to offer the same protections and rights to heterosexual and homosexual couples under the law.
Governor Chris Christie has opposed summary judgment on the issue, stating that the will of the voters will influence the state’s decision on the right to marry. But in her ruling, Jacobson ordered state officials to recognize same-sex marriages as legitimate by October 21st, and several same-sex wedding ceremonies were performed on and around that date. Gov. Christie had originally asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to stay the lower court’s ruling, but the Supreme Court refused, and as of October 21st, the Governor withdrew the state’s request, and agreed to allow the marriages to stand.
This decision will have a widespread impact on same-sex couples across the state, and family lawyers in New Jersey say that those in same-sex civil unions may elect to marry their partners, to solidify their relationship in the eyes of the state, and reap the benefits granted to married couples.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, the family lawyers represent same-sex couples who have been denied the right to marry, or partners in an existing civil union who want to explore their options now that the state recognizes same-sex marriages.