By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in New Jersey will be able to wed starting on Monday, after the state's highest court unanimously denied Governor Chris Christie's request to put gay marriage on hold while the state's appeal is heard.
The governor had asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to freeze a state judge's ruling allowing gay marriage until the top court hears the case in January and issues a final decision.
But in a signal that the court may be prepared to accept gay marriage permanently, all seven judges on the court ruled that the state had "not shown a reasonable probability it will succeed on the merits."
New Jersey on Monday will become the 14th state to permit gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia.
In a statement, Christie's spokesman reiterated the governor's position that gay marriage should be subject to a voter referendum but said Christie had ordered local officials to begin allowing gay marriage in accordance with the ruling.
Hayley Gorenberg, a lawyer with Lambda Legal who represents the gay couples, rejoiced at the news: "Take out the champagne glasses - wedding bells will soon be ringing in New Jersey."
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in Trenton ruled three weeks ago in favor of gay couples who had challenged the state's civil union law, finding that it unfairly restricted federal benefits that are guaranteed for married couples.
Jacobson's decision made New Jersey the first state to lift a gay marriage ban as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
The Supreme Court's ruling prompted a flurry of court filings from advocates in states across the country.
Next week, gay rights advocates will argue for marriage in New Mexico Supreme Court. A federal judge in Michigan this week set a February trial date for a gay marriage case there.
From a legal perspective, however, New Jersey was a prime target, since the state Supreme Court already ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual married couples. That led the legislature to create civil unions as a way of ensuring equal treatment.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the New Jersey plaintiffs went back to court arguing that civil unions no longer guaranteed equal rights because couples in such unions were deprived of federal benefits available to married couples, such as tax breaks and Social Security survivor benefits.
"The state's statutory scheme effectively denies committed same-sex partners in New Jersey the ability to receive federal benefits now afforded to married partners," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court.
In asking for a stay, the New Jersey attorney general's office argued that the state would suffer harm if gay marriage were not put on hold pending the appeal.
But the court said the state had failed to explain how it would be injured, while gay couples had shown they would miss out on crucial benefits until marriage was permitted.
"Like Judge Jacobson, we can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process unfolds," Rabner wrote.
Meanwhile, local officials were already preparing for a flood of same-sex couples seeking licenses on Monday. In Jersey City, the city clerk had begun to accept applications on Friday, according to a city spokeswoman.
The Democratic-controlled state legislature passed gay marriage legislation last year only to have Christie, considered a leading candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, veto the bill.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler and Alden Bentley)