New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Monday withdrew legal opposition to gay marriage, making same-sex nuptials the law in the state.
The move makes New Jersey the 14th state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.
On Friday, the state Supreme Court refused to delay a lower-court order for the state to begin recognizing same-sex marriages. On Monday morning, Christie said in a statement that he ordered an appeal dropped.
"Chief Justice Rabner left no ambiguity about the unanimous court's view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, 'same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today," Christie said.
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"Although the governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.
"The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court."
One second after midnight in Lambertville, a city of just under 4,000 people on the Delaware River, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey said "I do" in what they believed was the state's first such ceremony. Their union before Mayor David DelVecchio was held in a municipal meeting hall.
"When I go to bed tonight I don't have to worry about the living will or powers of attorney and do I have everything dotted and crossed," Asaro, 53, a city councilwoman, told reporters after the vows. "I'm equal now. I'm not an exception on all the forms."
At City Hall in Newark, the state's most populous city, Cory Booker, the two-term Democratic mayor who voters elected to the U.S. Senate last week, officiated for seven gay and two heterosexual couples who descended a set of curving steps just before midnight. They were greeted in the marble rotunda by a crowd of about 200, many of whom said they wanted to see history made.
A protester briefly disrupted proceedings when he shouted that the unions were against God's law. Police officers escorted him out. Booker went on to declare Joseph Panessidi, 65, a retired advertising executive, and Orville Bell, 65, a teacher, were "lawful spouses," and the crowd clapped and whooped.
Booker, 44, who had refused to perform heterosexual weddings in his city of 277,700 residents because he objected to the exclusion of same-sex couples, called the ceremonies "one of the greatest privileges of my life."
He is awaiting his swearing-in to the Senate after defeating Republican Steve Lonegan in a special election Oct. 16 to fill the remaining 15 months in the term of Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died at 89 in June.
The state Supreme Court unlocked the path to gay nuptials Oct. 18 when it ruled unanimously to deny a stay requested by Christie. The decision set off a dash for marriage-license applications at municipal offices throughout the state.
Christie, 51, vetoed a bill to allow same-sex marriage in February 2012.
A practicing Roman Catholic, Christie has said he believes marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman and has said a change in that standard is too important for the courts or the legislature to make. He has said voters should be given the opportunity to decide the issue.
Most New Jerseyans disagree with the governor, polls show.
In a Quinnipiac University survey released Oct. 10, 61 percent of likely voters said Christie should drop his opposition to the Sept. 27 decision by Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson that the civil-union law discriminates against same-sex couples. Christie sought a stay of the ruling pending an appeal to the state's high court, which wasn't scheduled to hear arguments on the matter until January.
Monday morning in Newark, as Booker officiated at the weddings, he was watched by Lauren Musarra, 25, a recent graduate of Rutgers School of Law at Newark, and 25-year-old Katelynn DeWitt, a graphic designer who is her partner of five years and the woman she plans to marry. They didn't know any of the couples, they said, and came a few blocks from their home to celebrate.
"I've been watching the judicial activism and from what I saw, when the Supreme Court denied the stay, the case will be a walkaway with a win on the merits," Musarra said before Christie dropped his appeal.
Christie's stance on the issue hasn't given his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, 60, who supports gay marriage, an edge. The Quinnipiac poll showed 62 percent backed the governor's re-election to 33 percent who supported Buono.
New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, was home to 16,875 same-sex couples in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the University of California at Los Angeles' Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation and gender-based public-policy issues.
Legalizing gay marriage would add $200 million to the New Jersey economy mainly through weddings and tourism, creating more than 1,400 jobs and generating $15.1 million in state and local-government revenue over three years, according to a 2009 study by the institute.
New Jersey is beset by unemployment that measured 8.5 percent in August, higher than the rate in surrounding states and more than the U.S. figure of 7.3 percent.
Christie directed state and municipal officials to comply with Jacobson's order after the high court rejected his request for a stay, his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said by email Oct. 18.
"While the governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the state of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order," Drewniak said.
Same-sex couples will be subject to procedural rules including the 72-hour waiting period for a license, according to an email sent to local officials by State Registrar Vincent Arrisi. State law lets couples seek a judicial waiver to obtain a license immediately.
In Lambertville, the ceremony drew about 100 gay-rights activists, family, friends, and neighbors who crammed a tiny municipal meeting room. State Sen. Shirley Turner, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora attended the wedding. All are Democrats from the Trenton area who represent the city in the state capital. Gusciora, the first openly gay lawmaker in New Jersey, was the prime sponsor of the bill Christie vetoed.
DelVecchio, the mayor, said he was determined to make his ceremony the first in the state, both to make history and advertise the city as "open for business" to gays and lesbians, he said in an interview.
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Asaro, a products manager for AT&T, wore a pink suit and pearls. Schailey, 56, a registered nurse, wore a black suit. The two entered the room to Shania Twain’s "Still the One," which they said was appropriate for their long path. The couple were among New Jersey's first to enter a civil union, in 2007, and were married in New York two years ago.
"They're achieving something, not of my doing but of their own doing, that previously couldn't happen and in that respect they're certainly pioneers," DelVecchio said. "Four or five years from now, people will look back and say, 'What was the fuss about?'"
Information from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press was used in this story.
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