TRENTON, Oct. 25 — New Jersey’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that gay couples are entitled to the same legal rights and financial benefits as heterosexual couples, but ordered the Legislature to decide whether their unions must be called marriage or could be known by another name.
In a decision filled with bold and sweeping pronouncements about equality, the New Jersey Supreme Court gave the Democratic-controlled Legislature 180 days to either expand existing laws or come up with new ones to provide gay couples benefits including tuition assistance, survivors’ benefits under workers’ compensation laws, and spousal privilege in criminal trials.
All seven justices agreed that the state’s Constitution demands full legal rights for same-sex partners. But its ruling, 4 to 3, revealed a split in how to proceed. The majority said that lawmakers, not the court, should decide whether to call those arrangements a marriage, a civil union or something else. The three dissenters went further, asserting that gay couples, like their heterosexual counterparts, must be allowed to wed.
The New Jersey court did not go as far as Massachusetts, which in 2003 became the first state to permit gay marriage. Instead, it could be considered the new Vermont, which created civil unions for gay couples in 2000, in the politically, legally and culturally charged world of same-sex marriage.
“Our decision today significantly advances the civil rights of gays and lesbians,” Justice Barry T. Albin wrote for the majority. “We have decided that our State Constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples.”
But the ruling passed along the thorniest question, of whether true equality demands the same name, to the Legislature, saying “such change must come from the crucible of the democratic process.”
Within minutes of the court’s 3 p.m. announcement, three Democratic Assemblymen, working with Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization, said they would introduce a bill demanding marriage.
But reaction from their fellow legislators was guarded, with some saying privately that civil unions, not marriage, would be the likely result. In a joint statement, the Assembly speaker, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., and the Senate president, Richard J. Codey, both Democrats, called the 180-day deadline “unreasonable” and said, “The only remaining issues now confronting the Legislature are ones of terminology and clarification.”
For people involved in the legal battle over gay marriage, the decision is an important shift from recent court rulings in New York, Washington state and California that essentially rejected gay couples’ claims on marriage and the benefits it confers. And by issuing a nuanced and complicated 90-page ruling that left observers struggling to declare who won and who lost, the court may have neutralized gay marriage as an issue in the Nov. 7 elections, when eight states will consider ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage.
“The decision certainly minimizes what the radical right thought they might have had as a mobilizing tool in the last days of the election,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization.
Nathaniel Persily, who teaches law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania and was a co-author of a recent paper titled “Gay Marriage, Public Opinion and the Courts,” praised the justices for “an incredibly smart and politically astute opinion.”
“The court has placed itself exactly where a majority of the American people are,” Professor Persily said. “A majority of Americans are in favor of equal rights for gays tantamount to marriage, but a majority is also against calling that relationship marriage.”
At the same time, he added: “This must be seen as a win for gay rights. They did not get the name they want, but they are getting more rights than could have been imaginable just a few years ago. Who would have thought 50, 20, even 10 years ago that a unanimous state supreme court would have said that gay relationships are entitled to equal rights as heterosexual relationships?”
But conservative groups opposed to same-sex marriage blasted the ruling as an example of the justices essentially trading judicial robes for legislative pens.
“The court is holding a legal gun to the head of the State Legislature, and saying, ‘Listen, there are two bullets, you get to pick the bullet: either gay marriage or civil unions,’ ” said Matt Daniels, president of Alliance for Marriage, an organization based in the Washington area that supports a federal Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. “And that is not democracy. That is court-imposed policy-making that takes this out of the hands of the people.”
Until now, courts in many other states — including the Court of Appeals in New York in July — had rejected similar lawsuits by same-sex couples, with the common rationale being that only the legislative branch can define or redefine marriage. No legislature has yet done that, though several states, including New Jersey, and dozens of cities and towns have enacted domestic partnership laws to grant gay couples some benefits in recent years.
Nineteen states have adopted constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Most others have statutory bans, but New Jersey and four other states do not. In addition to Massachusetts, where more than 8,000 gay couples have married in the past three years, Vermont and Connecticut authorize civil unions, which generally offer the same legal protections, if not the same societal status, as marriage.
Wednesday’s ruling caps a legal journey begun in 2002, when seven couples who had been denied marriage licenses in their towns filed the lawsuit now officially known as Lewis v. Harris. Two lower courts rejected their constitutional claim, with the Appellate Division ruling in June 2005 that marriage between members of the same sex was neither a fundamental right nor one covered by the constitution’s equal-protection clause.
Many gay-marriage advocates thought New Jersey’s high court, which heard the case Feb 15, was their best shot at victory.
It is regarded as one of the most liberal and independent in the country, having been among the first to strike down a ban on sodomy and rule in favor of adoption rights for gay couples.
The 4-3 split on Wednesday did not break along traditional political lines: the majority included all three justices appointed by a Democratic former governor, while the three dissenters, who backed the more far-reaching solution of opening marriage to gays, were named by a Republican.
“We do not have to take that all-or-nothing approach,” Justice Albin wrote of the marriage question in the majority opinion.
“We cannot find a legitimate public need for an unequal legal scheme of benefits and privileges that disadvantages same-sex couples,” he said. “We cannot find that a right to same-sex marriage is so deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people of this state that it ranks as a fundamental right.”
The court also expounded about the importance of equal treatment to protect children, diverging from the rulings of other state courts, which had said protecting procreation was one rationale for limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
“There is something distinctly unfair about the state recognizing the right of same-sex couples to raise natural and adopted children and placing foster children with those couples,” Justice Albin said, “and yet denying those children the financial and social benefits and privileges available to children in heterosexual households.”
In the dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz argued that the semantic distinction of marriage versus civil unions was itself a meaningful one, arguing that the institution “bestows enormous private and social advantages.”
Agreeing that same-sex couples deserve the same rights and benefits as heterosexual ones, she wrote that she “can find no principled basis, however, on which to distinguish those rights and benefits from the right to the title of marriage.”
As the case now moves from the domain of the courts to that of the legislature, some parties are gearing up for a fight.
Several Republican legislators — including State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., who is in a close race to unseat United States Senator Robert Menendez — said on Wednesday that they would like to see an amendment to the State Constitution banning same-sex marriage. But with the Democrats in control of both legislative chambers, and Mr. Codey and Mr. Roberts voicing opposition, such a ban seems unlikely.
At the same time, Garden State Equality, the gay rights group, began its lobbying campaign for marriage immediately after the decision, buying several weeks of television time for a new advertisement that began appearing on cable Wednesday night.
The ad features a cancer-stricken police officer, Lt. Laurel Hester, recalling her fight for death benefits for her female partner. Ms. Hester, bald and struggling to breathe, taped the commercial before she died early this year. The ad concludes with words appearing on the screen that read, “Support marriage equality. Your gay neighbors are depending on you.”