By Joseph Ax and Edith Honan
NEW YORK, Sept 27 (Reuters) - A New Jersey judge on Fridayordered state officials to allow same-sex couples to marrystarting Oct. 21, saying the current civil union system unfairlydeprives them of federal benefits available to married couples.
Judge Mary Jacobson in Mercer County Superior Court inTrenton issued the order, making New Jersey the first state tolift a ban on gay marriage as a result of the U.S. SupremeCourt's decision in June to strike down the federal law definingmarriage as between a man and a woman.
"Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order toobtain equal protection of the law under the New Jerseyconstitution," she wrote.
A spokesman for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie indicatedthe state would appeal but did not say whether it would seek astay to stop the ruling from taking effect.
Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, one of the attorneys forthe gay couples who brought the lawsuit, said they would fightthe appeal "every step of the way."
If Jacobson's decision stands, New Jersey would become the14th state to permit gay marriage. It is also legal in theDistrict of Columbia.
The ruling highlights, once again, the shifting legal andsocial landscape when it comes to gay marriage. Polls have shownincreasing public support for same-sex marriage, and civilrights groups have prevailed at a number of courthouses acrossthe country. Ten years ago, no U.S. states permitted gaymarriage.
On Friday, Exxon Mobil Corp said same-sex spouseswould be eligible for company benefits in light of the SupremeCourt's decision to strike down the federal Defense of MarriageAct in June.
An Illinois judge also ruled on Friday that lawsuitschallenging the state's civil unions could move ahead, rejectingan attempt by several county clerks to have them dismissed.
Opponents of same-sex marriage reacted angrily to the NewJersey ruling, saying such an emotionally fraught issue shouldbe left up to a voter referendum.
"It's another example of judicial activism on steroids. It'sabsurd," said Brian Brown, head of the National Organization forMarriage, a group that believes marriage should be defined as aunion between one man and one woman.
Last year, Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill passed by theDemocrat-controlled state legislature. Lawmakers have until theend of the year to override the veto, but it is not clear thatthe majority has enough votes. Christie, considered afrontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, hascalled for a referendum to decide the issue.
New Jersey gay rights groups immediately vowed on Friday tocontinue to press for an override vote. The appeals process islikely to last well into next year.
Across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that gaymarried couples must receive the same federal benefits, such astax breaks, granted to heterosexual couples has emboldenedadvocates, who are pursuing lawsuits in federal as well as statecourts.
"One of those cases is going to get to the Supreme Courtsometime in the next few years," said James Esseks, who overseesgay rights advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union.
New Jersey's civil union law, however, was especially ripefor a challenge because the state's Supreme Court already ruledin 2006 that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rightsas heterosexual married couples. That led the legislature tocreate civil unions as a way of ensuring equal treatment.
Friday's ruling was part of a long legal battle over thestate's civil union law. When the Supreme Court invalidated theDefense of Marriage Act, however, the same-sex couples in NewJersey went back to court, arguing that civil unions could notguarantee equal rights because of the gap in federal benefits.
In a 53-page opinion, Jacobson agreed, stating that NewJersey same-sex couples in civil unions are now missing out onfederal benefits they would otherwise be entitled to as a resultof the Supreme Court's action.
"These couples are now denied benefits solely as a result ofthe label placed upon them by the state," she wrote.
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