New Jersey marriage equality case could be litmus test for national impact of DOMA ruling

A court will determine if the SCOTUS ruling requires the state to legalize gay marriage. Similar cases may follow

By Katie McDonough
Published August 15, 2013 1:16PM (EDT)
A gay marriage supporter waves a rainbow flag in anticipation of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, June 24, 2013.     (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
A gay marriage supporter waves a rainbow flag in anticipation of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, June 24, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

A New Jersey court on Thursday will hear arguments from marriage equality advocates in order to determine if the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act requires the state to legalize gay marriage. It is the first case to test the effect of the high court's opinion on state laws banning equal marriage.

As the New York Times notes, the circumstances of the New Jersey case are unique, though it could set a precedent for legal challenges in other states:

[The New Jersey] Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the state could not deny same-sex couples the benefits granted to married couples. The Legislature, in response, passed a law allowing civil unions. But more recent attempts to legalize same-sex marriage were blocked by Mr. Christie. Now, the debate in court will hinge on whether the Supreme Court ruling in June that extended federal benefits to same-sex married couples applies as well to civil unions.

Advocates for same-sex marriage said the ruling clearly did not apply to civil unions and therefore, to meet the standard of equal protection that the state’s court set in 2006, New Jersey must allow marriage, not just civil unions. In court papers filed in advance of the oral arguments Thursday, they argued that state-sanctioned marriage was the “unique gateway to the full array of federal marriage benefits,” noting that the Supreme Court had explicitly noted its ruling was “confined to those lawful marriages” in states that allow them...

If the court agrees, it might immediately allow same-sex couples to marry, but the state could request that the court issue a stay until it can appeal the decision. If the court does not agree to summary judgment, the case may take years to reach a resolution.

New Jersey is the first state to employ the high court's majority opinion (that DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment “by seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others") to challenge a state law banning equal marriage, though it's unlikely it will be the last.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Equal Marriage Gay Marriage Gay Rights Lgbt Right New Jersey