The decision is not "really surprising," said Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore.
In a Sept. 27 opinion, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled the state's refusal to recognize gay marriage violated the equal protection clause of the New Jersey Constitution. She ordered the state government to begin Oct. 21 permitting same-sex marriages.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has requested a stay on implementation of the ruling and quick consideration of an appeal to the state Supreme Court, The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger reported. The Republican governor, who vetoed a same-sex marriage bill approved by the legislature last year, "has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters" and has supported the right of citizens to decide the issue in a ballot initiative, the newspaper quoted a Christie spokesman.
If Jacobson's opinion stands, New Jersey will become the 14th state to legalize same-sex marriage. California is among the states that grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but the legality of same-sex marriage across that state is under a court challenge. The District of Columbia also has legalized gay marriage.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Christians need to prepare to engage the issue with endurance.
"None of this is really surprising, given where the culture is headed on this issue," Moore told Baptist Press. "Christians do not need to wring our hands. Rather, we need to be ready to point to the Gospel vision of marriage as the permanent one-flesh union of a man and a woman, pointing to the most ultimate aspect of all of reality: the union of Christ to his church.
"This will not be a quick or easy contest of ideas, but rather a long-term articulation of the permanent things of marriage, family and the meaning of human sexuality," he said.
Jacobson's ruling came three months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of a federal law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, but upheld the states' authority to limit marriage to a heterosexual couple. In that 5-4 opinion, the justices said the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act violated "equal protection" under the Constitution by refusing to recognize gay marriages.
As a basis for her decision, Jacobson cited the Obama administration's differentiation between same-sex marriage and civil unions in the wake of the DOMA ruling. Since the high court's opinion, the federal government has been making rule changes to clarify that gay, married couples will be treated the same as heterosexual married couples for purposes of such things as taxes and Medicare coverage in nursing homes.
The refusal of the majority of federal agencies to provide benefits to civil unions in states where same-sex marriage is illegal requires New Jersey to "extend civil marriage to same-sex couples to satisfy the equal protection guarantees" of the state constitution, Jacobson wrote.
"Whereas before same-sex couples in New Jersey would have been denied federal benefits regardless of what their relationship was called, these couples are now denied benefits solely as a result of the label placed upon them by the State," she wrote.
It remains to be seen whether judges in other states that have legalized civil unions but not same-sex marriage will adopt Jacobson's reasoning. Three states -- Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois -- have civil unions but not gay marriage.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, described the ruling as "another outrageous example of judicial activism."
Same-sex marriage proponents praised the decision.
"This news is thrilling," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, which represented six same-sex couples in the case. "The end of DOMA made the freedom to marry even more urgent than before, because the state stood between these families and a host of federal protections, benefits, rights and responsibilities."
The expanding legalization of gay marriage has resulted in growing clashes with religious freedom. The ERLC has endorsed new legislation -- the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, H.R. 3133 -- that would prevent the federal government from denying tax exemption to, or withdrawing it from, individuals and institutions that define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Same-sex marriage advocates also gained a victory in the private sector Sept. 27.
ExxonMobil, the No. 2-ranked Fortune 500 corporation, announced it would provide health benefits to spouses of its workers in same-sex marriages, according to the Human Rights Campaign. ExxonMobil continues to exclude sexual orientation and gender identity from its non-discrimination policy.
In addition to New Jersey and California, the other 12 states that have now legalized same-sex marriage are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.
Tom Strode is Washington Bureau chief. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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