A New Jersey judge should not rush into allowing same-sex marriage in the state without carefully considering quickly changing legal issues, lawyers for the state government said in a court filing Friday.
The state says gay rights advocates may be misinterpreting details of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in their push to get gay marriage recognized in New Jersey, that the issue is not ready to be decided yet and that a quick ruling would be inappropriate.
"Plaintiffs, by virtue of their summary judgment motion, seek to side-step the Supreme Court mandate concerning the need for a factual record," the state Attorney General's Office says in its brief.
The filing Friday is the first legal word from the administration of Gov. Chris Christie in a legal tactic that flows directly from a June U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidates the key components of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex nuptials.
In New Jersey, the top state court ruled in 2006 that committed gay couples were entitled to "all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy," but that the state didn't have to allow marriage.
Six gay couples and several of their children sued in 2011, claiming that the state's compromise solution — civil unions that offer legal protections, but not the title of marriage — were not fulfilling that mandate. The issue was already heading for a trial, but it was probably at least several months away.
But days after the landmark federal ruling in June, the couples asked a judge to allow gay marriages immediately, saying the U.S. Supreme Court had changed the dynamics.
Their argument was that if the federal government is conferring benefits — from veteran's survivor payments to joint tax filings — to gay married couples, the state's civil union law would be denying those rights to New Jersey gay couples.
A state judge agreed to hear arguments on the issue on Aug. 15.
The state is asking for the question to proceed to a full trial — and to give the sides additional time to gather facts to support their cases.
In its brief, the state says it believes the federal ruling will give couples in civil unions federal marriage benefits even if they live in states where they are not recognized as married. The state notes that some federal agencies are considering extending protections to non-married gay couples. The state also argues that New Jersey courts should show caution because there's a dispute over the question.
The state also says that if the federal government denies benefits to couples with civil unions, the advocates should be suing the federal government rather than the state.
The gay marriage debate is a part of a political battle in New Jersey as well as a legal one. Lawmakers last year passed a bill to recognize it, but Christie vetoed it.
The governor, who is considered a possible presidential candidate for 2016, said the change was so big that citizens should be able to vote on it — a notion rejected by most of the state's leading gay rights advocates.
Last month, a coalition of state and national gay rights groups announced a new concerted political campaign aimed at persuading lawmakers to override Christie's veto by January.
Thirteen states now recognize gay marriage.