The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling today striking down the Defense of Marriage Act immediately re-energized the gay rights community and civil rights advocates in New Jersey, who hailed the landmark decision and said they will make a push to get gay marriage passed in the state.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court invalidated a key section of DOMA, a 1996 federal law barring same-sex married couples from receiving the same federal benefits as other couples.
Singling out gay couples to deny them benefits is unconstitutional and violates the Fifth Amendment, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.
Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said "the eyes of the nation will focus on what New Jersey will do next."
"New Jersey is now ground zero for the next big battle for marriage equality," Ofer said. "With DOMA being struck down, the term civil union will prevent New Jersey couples from being eligible for hundreds of federal benefits, such as Social Security and tax benefits."
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, called it a "monumental day" for the gay rights movement. But the ruling immediately turned New Jersey's same-sex couples into "second-class citizens," he said. The state allows civil unions but not marriages for same-sex couples.
"New Jersey's LGBT families will continue to be denied 1,138 rights and benefits granted to married couples by the federal government, even as those rights are conferred to LGBT families in our neighboring states," Stevenson said in a statement. "The inequality has never been more clear, the debate is over, and the only solution is to grant the freedom to marry now!"
He urged state lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed a same-sex marriage bill last year, to reconsider the bill immediately.
"More than 60 percent of New Jerseyans across all racial, socioeconomic, and generational divisions agree that the time to enact marriage equality is now, and the government must not abdicate any further responsibility in granting equal rights immediately," he said.
Advocates for same-sex marriage will use "every tool in their arsenal" in New Jersey until it's legalized, Ofer said. "There will be litigation, legislation, there will be a public outcry," he said.
In the opinion, Kennedy wrote: "The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution."
State Democratic leaders were ecstatic and urged Christie to change his position. The charge was led by state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democratic candidate for governor, who has vowed to sign the same-sex marriage bill if elected.
"For too long, our gay brothers and sisters were discriminated against under the law simply because of who they loved," she said in a statement. "The DOMA violated our core beliefs as Americans -- that all citizens deserve equal justice and equal rights under the law. Today's ruling affirms that all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, must be treated equally and offered the same benefits under federal law. While the battle was arduous and the fighting was fierce, our country now stands firmly on the right side of history as a more free and welcoming place for all to live and love."
State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said she was also happy to see DOMA struck down. The law allowed "roughly 1,000 discriminatory and financially-costly practices that have affected every facet of same-sex couples' lives," she said in a statement.
"This is a major step forward and will hopefully serve as a springboard for other states struggling to achieve equality, namely New Jersey," Oliver said. "I would hope that this decision will make Governor Christie and Republican members of our legislature take a circumspect look at the many ways in which their denial of support has allowed discrimination to continue to flourish in our state and recognize that it's not too late to change this."
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said that "by striking down DOMA, the court sent a message that inequality will not be tolerated in our country.";
"This decision marks significant progress in the ongoing fight for civil rights for all Americans," they said in a statement. "It is a shame that New Jersey stands so far behind the rest of the country and now the Supreme Court on this issue."
In a veiled reference to Christie, they said, "It is time to finally establish marriage equality here in New Jersey and for those who have worked to obstruct true equality to get out of the way."
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the court "took a strong stand for marriage equality."
"Now there can be no ambiguity," Menendez said in a statement. "You cannot be discriminated against simply because of whom you love. Our nation will provide and protect the rights and privileges of married people -- period."
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) said legalizing same-sex marriage is inevitable, and that the issue will define the legacies of New Jersey's elected officials. He urged Christie and other lawmakers to take action immediately on the same-sex marriage bill.
The bill passed last year mostly along party lines, with Democrats for and Republicans against, but was vetoed by Christie. To override Christie's veto, the Legislature needs a two-thirds majority in each chamber, and has until January to cobble together the votes. Separately, there is also a prominent case in state court that could end up legalizing same-sex marriage through the judiciary.
"By striking down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, the court has signaled a turning of the tide in this country," Greenwald said in a statement. " As I said when I helped lead the Assembly in passing its first ever marriage equality bill: years from now, marriage equality will be the law of the land, and our kids and grandkids will wonder just what the fuss was all about. Make no mistake: this issue will define our legacies as public servants for generations to come."
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) said he was one of few lawmakers who declined to support DOMA in 1996.
"The Supreme Court has held what I have been arguing for more than a decade -- DOMA is unconstitutional," he said in a statement. "Yet it is still just one step in the march towards total equality for all Americans. I remain strongly in support of repealing DOMA in its entirety and passing the Respect for Marriage Act so that all marriages between two committed individuals in the United States are recognized by the federal government."