Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said the decision is another step not only toward equal rights for gay and lesbian couples but also toward full acceptance in American society.
“Every day, every wedding, every protection made available will show that families are helped and no one is hurt when gay couples share in the freedom to marry,” Mr. Wolfson said in a statement.
The high court case stems from a challenge to New Jersey’s civil union law. That law provides that gay couples must be afforded all the rights and privileges of opposite-sex married couples, although without the label of marriage.
In 2011, six same-sex couples and a gay rights group, Garden State Equality, filed suit challenging the civil union law. They argued that it fails to provide equal treatment.
The case moved into high gear last summer after the US Supreme Court struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That law had barred same-sex married couples from receiving 1,200 federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.
In striking down the law, the US Supreme Court said that it is up to the states to define who is married and that the federal government cannot deny equal benefits to same-sex couples who are lawfully married in their home states.
Lawyers in the New Jersey case applied that holding with an interesting twist. The US Supreme Court case involved married same-sex couples, but not those in civil unions. Federal agencies have continued to deny federal benefits to civil union couples.
Nonetheless, lawyers for the same-sex couples argued that because the New Jersey constitution requires that civil union spouses be treated equally with opposite-sex couples, the constitution requires that they be able to receive the same federal benefits.
The lawyers argued that the state must make good on the demands of the New Jersey constitution. To do so they would have to allow same-sex couples to marry.