“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.”
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.