A state judge refused Thursday to delay the start of same-sex marriage in New Jersey until a legal appeal can be settled. But the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie immediately sought and was granted a request to file an emergency challenge to the decision.
If the administration does not prevail, the state must grant marriage licenses for same-sex couples starting Oct. 21.
Granting a stay would simply allow the state to continue to violate the equal protection rights of New Jersey same-sex couples, which can hardly be considered a public interest," Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Thursday, refusing to put on hold her order issued last month.
The administration issued a statement saying only that it was now asking the state appeals court to overturn her ruling while it also continues to ask the state Supreme Court to take up the matter on an expedited basis as well.
Christie, a possible candidate for president in 2016 who is now running for a second term as governor, has said gay marriage should be made legal in New Jersey only if voters agree at a referendum, though none is scheduled.
During a debate with his Democratic opponent Tuesday, Christie again spelled out his position.
He said that if the state is going to change the "core definition of marriage" as between a man and a woman, "I don't think that should be decided by 121 politicians in Trenton or seven judges on the Supreme Court."
"It should be decided by the 8.8 million people of New Jersey, and if they do decide to change the definition of marriage by referendum then I will support that law and enforce that part of the constitution with the same vigor that I've done for the last four years with every other part," he said.
In her decision Thursday that the start of gay marriages did not have to be delayed, Jacobson concluded that the state was not likely to win its appeal and that it would not hurt the state if same-sex marriage licenses are issued.
Gay couples who want to wed "would suffer many hardships of constitutional magnitude if the stay were to be issued, but the state has not demonstrated how it would suffer in any meaningful way if the order is enforced," she wrote.
Thirteen states, including most in the Northeast, already allow gay couples to marry. New Jersey offers gay couples civil unions but not marriage.
The matter has been fought in New Jersey's courts and Legislature for a decade.
"The court's decision once again confirms that the hardships of not being able to marry are real and immediate. Every day does count," said Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, which had filed a brief in support of same-sex couples seeking the right to marry.
Jacobson's ruling in September concluded that it's unconstitutional for New Jersey to block gay marriage now that the federal government is giving married gay couples legal benefits.
New Jersey's attorney general had argued unsuccessfully that a state law cannot be found unconstitutional because of a change in federal policy.
Gay rights groups are also pushing lawmakers to override Christie's veto last year of a law that would have allowed gay marriage.