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Gay marriage can begin in New Jersey, for now, state's top court rules (+video)

The New Jersey Supreme Court said Friday that same-sex couples in the state could wed, starting Monday, while an appeal to same-sex marriage is pending. The court's sharp tone indicates that the justices are likely, in the end, to affirm gay marriage rights for good.

New Jersey Supreme Court OKs gay marriage
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The New Jersey Supreme Court on Friday opened the way for the first time for gay and lesbian couples in the state to get married starting next Monday, Oct. 21.

With a stroke of the judicial pen, New Jersey joined 13 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex couples to marry.

The 7-to-0 ruling is only preliminary, with the court set to hear arguments on the merits of the case in early January. But the sharp tone of Friday’s 20-page opinion leaves little doubt that the justices are likely to uphold an earlier judge’s ruling that the New Jersey constitution requires that the state permit same-sex couples to marry.

“We find that the compelling public interest in this case is to avoid violations of the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment for same-sex couples,” the court said. “The state argues that we should give the democratic process a chance to play out rather than act now. When courts face questions that have far-reaching social implications, there is a benefit to letting the political process and public discussion proceed first,” the court noted.

But the justices added: “When a party presents a clear case of ongoing unequal treatment, and asks the court to vindicate constitutionally-protected rights, a court may not sidestep its obligations to rule for an indefinite amount of time.”

“Under those circumstances, courts do not have the option to defer,” they said.

The issue was not whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. That will be decided after January’s argument session. The issue on Friday was simply whether same-sex couples could begin getting married before the court hears the appeal.

Nonetheless, gay rights activists were quick to praise the court’s actions as historic and important.

“Next Monday will be a historic day for New Jersey,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

“The Supreme Court has recognized what we all know – that marriage equality is the only path forward for New Jersey,” he said. “Civil unions prevent loving and committed same-sex couples from being treated equally. They never have been and never will be equal to marriage.”

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