TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey's Supreme Court has left it to the Legislature to decide the rules for gay couples who want to marry in the state.
In a 4-3 ruling Wednesday, the court said the state constitution gives same-sex couples the same civil rights afforded to heterosexual couples, but the lawmakers must decide how to grant those rights.
"The Legislature must either amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples or create a parallel statutory structure, which will provide for, on equal terms, the rights and benefits enjoyed and burdens and obligations borne by married couples," the court held.
The court ruled that the state does not have a "legitimate governmental purpose" in denying same-sex couples "the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts."
Citing the equal protection clause, Article 1, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey constitution, the court ruled that "committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes. The name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same-sex couples, whether marriage or some other term, is a matter left to the democratic process."
The high court stopped short of fully approving gay marriage in the state, and gave lawmakers 180 days to rewrite marriage laws to either include same-sex couples or create new civil unions.
"The issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people," the court said.
Advocates on both sides of the issue had believed the relatively liberal New Jersey high court had the best chance of approving gay marriages since Massachusetts became the only state to do so in 2003. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that civil unions were constitutional. The state avoided using the word "marriage."
Eight states have initiatives on this year's ballots that could end up banning same-sex marriages. Fifteen states have amended constitutions to ban same-sex unions after ballot initiatives approved such action.
State courts including New York, Washington, Nebraska and Georgia have upheld voter-approved bans on gay marriage.
New Jersey lawmakers voted to allow domestic partnerships in 2004, but they have been reluctant to delve into the sensitive issue of marriage. Under domestic partnerships, gay couples have some benefits of marriage, such as the right to inherit possessions if there is no will and health care coverage for state workers.
Offering a concurring and dissenting view were Chief Justice Deborah T. Portiz, and Justices Virginia Long and James R. Zazzali. While the three agreed that denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily granted to heterosexual couples violates the state constitution's equal protection clause, Portiz went further, saying she disagreed with the majority's conclusion that "there is no fundamental due process right to same-sex marriage encompassed within the concept of 'liberty' guaranteed by the equal protection clause." She added that same sex couples should be granted to use the title of "marriage."
In the court ruling, the justices held that it would not seek to presume the constitutionality of a legal construct separate from existing marriage statutes nor whether "a difference in name is of constitutional magnitude."
The court shot down the state's claim that enactment of a law granting same-sex marriages would conflict with the full faith and credit clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution because "equality of treatment is a dominant theme of our laws and a central guarantee of our State Constitution."
The court also suggested that the plaintiffs, seven long-term same-sex couples, must do more than fight their battles in court, they must change social mores.
The courts can ensure equal treatment, the ruling states, but it "cannot guarantee social acceptance, which must come through the evolving ethos of a maturing society. Plaintiffs' quest does not end here. They must now appeal to their fellow citizens whose voices are heard through their popularly elected representatives."
Just after the ruling was issued, Garden State Equality, New Jersey's main gay and lesbian political organization, quickly announced that three lawmakers would introduce a bill in the Legislature to get full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine supports domestic partnerships, but not gay marriage.
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese commended the court, and urged the Legislature to "not go down the path of separate but equal, but rather ... embrace marriage equality." Solmonese noted that the decision affects only civil marriage and allows religious institutions to decide if they want to honor same-sex unions.
Cases similar to the one ruled on Wednesday are pending in California, Connecticut, Iowa and Maryland. Supporters of gay marriage said they were invigorated by the court's ruling.
"New Jersey is a stepping stone," said Matt Daniels, president of the Virginia-based Alliance for Marriage, a group pushing for an amendment to the federal Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. "It's not about New Jersey."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.