Wedding bells rang for same-sex couples across New Jersey Monday, marking the conclusion of a decade-long legal battle and bringing the total number of marriage-equality states to 14, plus Washington, D.C.
The first marriages took place at 12:01 a.m., with couples in towns such as Lambertville and Asbury Park vying to become the first married same-sex couples in New Jersey. Sen.-elect Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, presided over a number of midnight ceremonies in his town, the first weddings he ever officiated, as he pledged to only officiate weddings once marriage equality became law in the Garden State.
“It is officially past midnight, marriage is equal in New Jersey,” Booker shouted to loud cheers in the Newark Rotunda. He first married Joseph Panessidi and Orville Bell, friends of his who have been together for 15 years.
“It is one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life to be conducting the first wedding ceremonies of my time as mayor, and that I get a chance to marry two gentleman who are longstanding friends of mine and upstanding citizens of our state, city and community.”
While some couples actually married Monday, there was some confusion over which towns were waiving the typical three-day waiting period between marriage applications and weddings.
But those snags were overshadowed mid-morning Monday when Gov. Chris Christie’s office announced that the administration was dropping its appeal of the ruling mandating marriage equality.
Last month, a Superior Court judge found the state’s civil-union law to be unconstitutional and set the Oct. 21 start date for marriage equality. The Christie administration summarily appealed and asked for a delay of the deadline, which both the judge and the state Supreme Court denied. The top court was slated to consider the lower-court finding in January but was largely predicted to side with the marriage-equality ruling, perhaps prompting the Christie administration’s yielding.
Christie’s administration said in a statement that “although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.”
In addition, the statement read, Christie would “do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin commended the governor — who earlier this month noted he wouldn’t support same-sex marriage even if his child was gay — for recognizing marriage equality had won.
“Gov. Christie did the right thing in not standing in the way of loving couples’ ability to make lifelong commitments to each other through marriage.,” Griffin said. “Civil unions have never been full equality and as the state court system has said, denying marriage to lesbian and gay couples does real harm to them and their families. Breaking down this dark wall of discrimination in New Jersey helps build momentum as we continue to expand the marriage-equality map so that one day soon a state border will not dictate whether a loving couple can share in the joys of marriage.”
New Jersey now holds the distinction as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
According to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 17,000 same-sex couples living in New Jersey, who will now be eligible for full state marriage benefits, as well as federal marriage benefits.
The legal saga in New Jersey began in 2002, when a group of same-sex couples sued the state, ultimately resulting in the 2007 civil-union law.
The plaintiffs, which also included Garden State Equality, returned to court in 2011 to challenge the civil-union law. They renewed their argument in July and pressed for summary judgment, relying heavily on the DOMA ruling.
While marriage equality is now the law, some advocates are still pressing for a legislative override of Christie’s 2011 veto of marriage-equality legislation to bolster the law against any potential challenges.
Garden State Equality executive director Troy Stevenson said in a press conference Monday his agency was considering its next course of action.
In the meantime, though, members were celebrating.
“This is the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day we’ve been fighting for. This is the day we won,” Stevenson said. “Marriage equality is the law of the land in New Jersey at last.”
While New Jerseyans were celebrating, some Pennsylvanians used the opportunity to press for progress on this side of the Delaware River.
Out state Rep. Brian Sims (D-182nd Dist.) and Rep. Steve McCarter (D-154th Dist.) on Monday called on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to follow Christie’s lead and drop his opposition to the burgeoning marriage-equality movement — and to support the LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance.
“Once again, we’re seeing that even conservative Republicans are realizing that all Americans deserve equal rights,” Sims said. “Unfortunately, here in Pennsylvania, where LGBT Pennsylvanians lack even a single LGBT civil right, some members of the Republican Party would sooner be the Republicans of 1955 rather than 2025. It’s unconscionable that Pennsylvanians who get married out of state can still be fired for putting a wedding photo on their desks.”
McCarter called it a “black eye on the state of Pennsylvania” that most neighboring states offer marriage equality and LGBT nondiscrimination protections.
“Plain and simple, the fact that Pennsylvanians can now cross a border and be granted more rights than they currently have in their own state is a problem that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed now.”
Earlier this month, Corbett compared same-sex marriage to incest, weeks after his administration compared marriage equality to marriage between children. Several legal challenges to Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage are pending in state and federal courts.
Equality Pennsylvania president Ted Martin said New Jersey’s victory puts Pennsylvania’s lack of LGBT rights into even greater contrast — which can be a useful tool in educating both the public and policymakers.
“When people see how isolated Pennsylvania really is and how we stand out, I think it shocks them and that helps build public pressure,” Martin said. “Good for New Jersey. I’m proud of my colleagues and all who made this happen in New Jersey. But in a way this definitely does help put pressure on Pennsylvania.”