TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (NJ): On October 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of New Jersey (NJ) unanimously ruled to enforce the Mercer County Superior Court Judge’s decision declaring the state’s marriage law banning same-sex marriage to constitute unlawful discrimination and accordingly, unconstitutional. Judge Mary Jacobson of Mercer County Superior Court ruled on September 27, 2013 in favor of same-sex couples who challenged the law regarding civil unions, arguing the law restricted federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples. For example, under federal and New Jersey (NJ) employment laws, legally married couples may take leave to provide care to a spouse with a serious medical condition (under the Family Medical Leave Act, “FMLA”, and the New Jersey Family Leave Act, “NJ FLA”). However, couples not legally married are not entitled to such protections.
The Supreme Court’s ruling refused the application of stay by the New Jersey Attorney General, under the direction of Governor Chris Christie, on the Order issued by Judge Jacobson on the basis that “the state has not shown reasonable probability it will succeed on the merits.” The Governor withdrew his appeal on the Supreme Court’s decision almost immediately thereafter, removing the final legal challenge against same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Accordingly, New Jersey has now become the 14th state to legalize gay marriage, a monumental step forward in progressing civil rights for, and preventing discrimination against, all New Jersey citizens.
Chief Justice Rabner delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court of New Jersey on the application of stay on Order made by the Governor, citing that the State has provided many arguments, none of which have overcome the reality that same-sex couples who cannot marry “are not treated equally under the law” and “the harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative.” The Supreme Court found “no public interest” in discriminating against a group of New Jersey residents while the appeals process unfolds.
New Jersey is the 14th state to prevent discrimination against gay couples by allowing same-sex marriage, the culmination of a decade-long battle in the courts and Legislature. It is worth noting that the step against discrimination in New Jersey was not due to voter referendum or the legislature. Instead, it was won in the Courts. New Jersey Courts have seen a heightened amount of legal activity from discrimination and civil rights attorneys and advocacy groups since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor invalidated key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that violated the federal Constitution on the basis of discrimination by denying lawfully married same-sex couples the benefits given to married couples of the opposite sex.
Since the Windsor decision, gay rights advocates have asked New Jersey judges to force the state to recognize same-sex marriage, arguing the law banning same sex marriage unlawfully discriminated against them Specifically, it was argued that the State Constitutions’ guarantee of equal protections for legal issues concerning family and medical leave, Medicare, tax issues, immigration matters, military and veterans’ affairs, and other areas. Many attorneys have noted that much of the necessary precedent was already established prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling was done in 2006, when justices ruled in Lewis v. Harris that gay couples must get all the rights and benefits that straight couples receive.
The matter of same-sex marriage is directly related to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), which makes it unlawful to subject people to differential treatment for protected classes such as sexual orientation, race, creed, color, sex, gender identity or expression, or marital, domestic partnership or civil union status. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits unlawful discrimination in employment, housing, places of public accommodation, credit and business contracts. In 2007, the New Jersey Attorney General, in a formal opinion, advised the Department of Health that it would violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for municipal officials to officiate over heterosexual marriages and refuse to officiate over same-sex civil unions. The reasoning set-forth in the New Jersey Attorney General’s letter will now also extend to same-sex marriages. An official cannot refuse to officiate over same-sex marriages while being available for heterosexual marriages. An official who refuses to officiate over all marriages would be in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Shortly after the decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped the state’s appeal, meaning that the New Jersey Superior Court decision holding that same-sex marriages are protected by the state’s Constitution, will not be disturbed.
Swartz Swidler, LLC, a New Jersey law firm who predominately represents employees in wrongful termination, discrimination and wage and hour disputes, applauds the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s ruling to uphold the decision of declaring the state’s marriage laws to be unconstitutional. If you believe that you may have been discriminated against, please call today to speak to one of our attorneys.