Following the historic ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June by the US Supreme Court permitting same-sex marriage, New Jersey appears to be the latest state to follow suit. On September 27, 2013, a New Jersey court ruled in Garden State Equality v. Dow, L-001729-11 (New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County, September 27, 2013) that beginning on October 21, 2013, same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
In doing so, the court explicitly recognized that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, same- sex couples residing in states that denied them the right to marry but allowed them to enter civil unions or domestic partnerships were being denied the federal benefits available to legally married same-sex couples in states where same-sex marriage is permitted. The court reasoned that this trend of federal agencies continuing to deny civil union partners federal benefits resulted in unequal treatment of same-sex couples. The court determined that "[t]his unequal treatment requires that New Jersey extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution."
While New Jersey has permitted civil unions since 2007 and same-sex couples were provided with all the rights and benefits of married heterosexual couples, the continued denial of the right to marry to same-sex couples would prevent them from obtaining federal benefits available to couples in states where same-sex marriage is permitted.
While the ruling is expected to be challenged and Governor Chris Christie has openly stated that he believes the issue of same-sex marriage should be on the ballot and decided by the people, this ruling is extremely significant as it is part of a growing trend toward the states accepting same-sex marriage. In fact, in the last year alone, Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota all enacted legislation permitting same sex marriage.
Further, in light of this ruling, New Jersey employers should be proactive and amend their workplace policies regarding sexual orientation discrimination and benefits for same-sex spouses. If this ruling survives legal challenge or the New Jersey voters approve same-sex marriage, it will likely have a considerable impact on benefits, nondiscrimination, employee leaves and payroll in the state of New Jersey.