A New Jersey court case headed for oral arguments this week is among the first to test what a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down key parts of a law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage means in states.
Even though the ruling will affect only New Jersey directly, it's being watched closely for broader implications.
"I think every challenge now and every court hearing is going to be amplified until it seems more clear whether we're going to have a patchwork in the states or a national policy,'' said Bill Duncan, director of the Orem, Utah-based Marriage Law Foundation, which opposes allowing same-sex couples to wed.
The hearing Thursday in Superior Court in Trenton is based on a lawsuit from two years ago, when six couples and their children argued that New Jersey's civil union law didn't fulfill a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that said gay couples had to have the same legal protections as married couples. The civil union law was intended to give same-sex couples the legal benefits of marriage.
It's not clear when the judge might rule, and her decision will likely be appealed to a higher court.
The hearing brings the spotlight on gay marriage back to New Jersey, where the legal battle over the issue has been waged since 2002 _ before any state recognized same-sex marriage.
Now, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are the only states in the Northeast not among the 13 that nationally recognize it.
"It's pretty distressing that the state of New Jersey is fighting the freedom to marry so strongly,'' said Marc Solomon, the national campaign director at Freedom To Marry. "It certainly is out of sync with other Northeastern states.''
Advocates say the state's refusal to recognize same-sex nuptials violates the state constitution because it deprives couples of rights granted by the federal government. They say a judge should issue a summary judgment to allow gay marriage immediately because of the federal ruling that found portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act were unconstitutional.
The state contends that argument is wrong because those federal protections could still be granted to same-sex couples who are not recognized as married by the state. And the state attorney general's office said in its brief that if that's not the case, advocates in New Jersey should be suing the federal government for withholding rights, not the state.
If the Superior Court judge _ or ultimately an appeals court or the state Supreme Court _ denies the summary judgment motion, the legal push for the state to recognize same-sex nuptials will remain in place, and the case can continue to trial.
Gay marriage advocates have been pushing lawmakers to override Republican Gov. Chris Christie's veto last year of a bill to allow same-sex marriage. Lawmakers have until January to override it before the bill expires.