TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The state's highest court on Friday agreed to hear a case on whether gay marriage should be legal and whether same-sex marriage licenses can be issued while it decides.
The issue, battled in New Jersey's courts and Legislature for more than a decade, has taken on new urgency on both fronts with the opponents the same — Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, and the state's gay rights advocates.
The Supreme Court's decision to take up the case was the one thing both sides wanted.
Christie's administration asked the court to take the case without first going through an appeals court. In a brief filed Friday, it argued that the issue is too important to be decided by just one judge.
And gay rights advocates say the state Supreme Court made the right call in taking up the case.
"It certainly shows that they understand the public importance and that makes all the sense in the world," said Hayley Gorenberg, a Lambda Legal lawyer representing Garden State Equality and a group of couples who asked a judge in July to order the state to grant same-sex marriages.
The judge, Mary Jacobson, agreed with the advocates in a ruling last month, finding that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June makes it necessary for the state to grant same-sex marriages starting Oct. 21. The state wants that delayed until the appeals are fully resolved.
The court is expected to rule before Oct. 21 on the question of issuing licenses and is scheduled to hear the full case on Jan. 6 or 7.
That's just before the deadline for lawmakers to override Christie's 2012 veto of a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage in the state. Advocates are pushing lawmakers hard for an override.
Currently, 13 states, including most in the Northeast, recognize same-sex marriage. Since 2007, New Jersey has granted gay couples civil unions.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June extended benefits such as Social Security survivor benefits and joint tax filing to gay couples.
The gay rights groups argued the state is standing in the way of New Jersey couples' ability to get those benefits in violation of a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that said the state's gay couples had to receive treatment equal with married couples.
So far, the federal government has not been consistent about whether couples with civil unions will receive the federal benefits. Rules being created in some departments say they will; in others, they won't.
The state government is arguing that the federal government should grant full marriage benefits to New Jersey couples with civil unions.
Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin, who live in South Brunswick, were married in New York last year on the 20th anniversary of their religious wedding.
The couple, who are plaintiffs in the suit against the state, said that if the stay Christie is requesting is not granted, they'll tie the knot legally in New Jersey immediately.
"Whenever the first day is, we can find someone who can find someone to say we are married," said Walpin.
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