In 2013, the trial court decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow became the landmark case that found New Jersey’s marriage laws violated the rights of same-sex couples to equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution. An application for a stay was denied, and the State Supreme Court unanimously refused to stay the decision as well. The ruling took effect on October 21, 2013, and paved the way to ending the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples in New Jersey.
“Marriage equality is just one in a series of affirmative action battles fought faithfully by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement for more than 50 years. Garden State Equality v. Dow was a decision that finally answered an enduring question for New Jersey and fulfilled the dreams of countless citizens who sought legal validation of their love for their partner,” said Rajiv D. Parikh, Partner at Genova Burns. “Once envisioned as impossible and quite distant, same-sex marriage is now embraced with significant acceptance and is the capstone of an ongoing social movement that comes with more goals yet unfulfilled. “
Same-sex marriages have been legally recognized in the State of New Jersey since October 21, 2013, when a New Jersey trial court issued a decision that invalidated the State's restriction of marriage to persons of opposite sexes.
In 2011, Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of Garden State Equality and six same-sex families against the State of New Jersey, alleging that New Jersey’s civil union system (which was create by the legislature to provide same-sex couples the same benefits as marriage) failed to provide those same benefits and violated the guarantee of equal protection.
In June 2013, while the case was pending in the New Jersey Courts, the United States Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in United States v. Windsor. As a result, the federal government began providing benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
In September 2013, the New Jersey Superior Court, ruled that as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case of United States v. Windsor, the New Jersey Constitution required the state to recognize same-sex marriages.
In her ruling, presiding judge Mary C. Jacobson stated, “Since Windsor, the clear trend has been for Federal agencies to limit the extension of benefits to only those same-sex couples in legally recognized marriages.” She pointed out that while many federal agencies were extending benefits to same-sex couples in a marriage, the existing civil union laws in New Jersey were not recognized by these federal agencies. She asserted that the Windsor decision changed the significance of the state's civil unions scheme and that “the parallel legal structures created by the New Jersey Legislature no longer provided same sex couples with equal access to the rights and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.”
Following an appeal of the initial decision in the case, the State Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to correct this “constitutional violation,” thus permitting either same-sex marriage or civil unions with all the rights and benefits of marriage, within 180 days. Prior to this ruling, in 2012, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, which was, in turn, vetoed by then Governor Chris Christie.
The Christie administration asked the Court to grant a stay of the decision, pending the State’s appeal. The State argued that New Jersey would be subject to irreparable injury if same-sex marriage were allowed, and the questions of Constitutional law increased the state’s reasonable probability of success on appeal. On October 10, 2013, Judge Jacobson denied the state motion for a stay.
On October 18, 2013, the State Supreme Court unanimously denied the final appeal on the State’s request for a stay, paving the way, just three days later, for the trial court ruling to go into effect. As a result, local officials began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and a large number of wedding ceremonies were performed. Hours after the first marriages were officiated on October 21, 2013, Governor Christie dropped the state’s appeal and New Jersey became the 14th state with the freedom to marry for all who choose, regardless of gender.