Gay couples in New Jersey, testing the reach of a landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer, asked a judge Thursday to declare same-sex marriage legal in the Garden State.
A state official responded by telling the judge that the couples have a problem with the federal government, not the state. New Jersey already has civil unions, he argued, and that should be enough for the federal government to extend benefits.
Larry Lustberg, a lawyer for the gay-rights group Garden State Equality and for six gay couples, said the state could resolve the conflict by declaring gay marriage legal. That would make New Jersey the 14th state to allow it.
“It is the state, not the federal government, that is the source of the problem here,” he said, according to a report from The Associated Press.
The Supreme Court in June invalidated a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that blocked federal benefits for gay couples even when they are legally married under state law.
In light of the Supreme Court ruling, the gay couples say they are being denied full federal benefits because New Jersey recognizes only civil unions and not gay marriage, according to the AP.
Mel Evans / AP file
A July gathering in support of gay marriage on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J.
Kevin Jesperson, a state assistant attorney general, told the judge it’s not yet clear because federal agencies are still writing their rules.
Federal agencies are still rolling out their response. The Defense Department will recognize marriages in states where they were granted, while other agencies will grant benefits only to couples whose marriages are legal in the state where they live.
The New Jersey judge, Mary Jacobson, said she would not rule on the matter before September. She gave both sides time to provide her more information and said neither side had cited enough case law, according to the AP account.
The gay couples will take their case to trial, possibly later this year, but they asked the judge to rule in their favor ahead of time because of the Supreme Court ruling.
New Jersey’s highest court ruled in 2006 that gay couples had to be granted the legal benefits of marriage, and state lawmakers responded by passing civil unions.
The New Jersey Legislature passed a gay marriage bill, but Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed it last year, saying he wanted voters to decide the matter. Democratic lawmakers want to override the veto by January.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published August 15 2013, 1:51 PM