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New Jersey judge orders state to allow gay marriage. Christie vows appeal. (+video)

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The underlying issue arose last June when the US Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court struck down DOMA because it sought to impose a federal definition of marriage on states that had decided to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples under state law.

The 1996 federal law had restricted receipt of some 1,200 federal benefits to married couples comprised of a man and a woman. Same-sex couples legally married under state law were denied the same benefits available to opposite-sex couples married in those same states.

In their ruling in June, the majority justices said DOMA violated equal protection principles by failing to defer to the decisions of the states in deciding for themselves who should be recognized as “married.”

Although it was clear from the decision that same-sex married couples must be afforded equal benefits by the federal government, the decision left unresolved whether those same benefits should also be afforded to same-sex couples who had entered into civil unions.

The federal government and federal agencies have been seeking to answer that question since June. At least so far, the answer has been no, civil unions are not recognized by the federal government as marriages for purposes of federal marriage benefits.

Judge Jacobson noted that gay rights activists might have filed suit against the federal government to force it to adopt a broader definition of marriage.

But she said they were also entitled to sue in New Jersey to overturn a state legislative roadblock that was now preventing same-sex civil union couples from being treated equally with married couples in New Jersey.

A coalition of same-sex rights groups called Garden State Equality and six same-sex couples and their children filed their motion within days of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.

They argued that the New Jersey Constitution guarantees that they be treated equally with married couples in the state. Their plight could be resolved by exchanging two words for one word – civil union for marriage.

The judge agreed.

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