A state judge on Friday ordered New Jersey to allow same-sex couples to marry, saying the "civil unions" illegally prevent them from availing federal benefits guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Chris Christie's office said the decision will be appealed.
"Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey constitution," wrote Judge Mary Jacobson of Trenton's Mercer County Superior Court in the order, according to Reuters.
Jacobson asked the state to allow same-sex marriage beginning Oct. 21.
New Jersey is the first state to lift a ban on same-sex marriage as a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to knock down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
DOMA prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.
However, a spokesman for the Republican Gov. Christie said the state would appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, without clarifying if it would ask for a stay on the decision. Christie is of the opinion that a referendum should be held to decide if same-sex marriage should be allowed in the state.
"Since the Legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court [state's high court] make this constitutional determination," Christie's office said in a statement Friday.
Last year, Christie vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that sought to legalize gay marriage, urging lawmakers to put the issue before voters.
Judge Jacobson said New Jersey same-sex couples in civil unions were being denied federal benefits they are entitled to as a result of the Supreme Court's action in June. "These couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the state," she wrote in a 53-page opinion.
"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 relationship by the state," Jacobson added.
Supporters of gay marriage say they are prepared to fight. "We know that we've got to continue to fight first in the Legislature as well as in the courts," Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, was quoted as saying. "We know there's a lot of work left."
Opponents of same-sex marriage criticized the order. "It's another example of judicial activism on steroids. It's absurd," Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage, was quoted as saying.
Civil unions between gay couples are recognized in New Jersey since 2007. Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois also offer civil unions, and not marriage, to same-sex couples.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia. These states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.