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Chris Christie withdraws appeal as same-sex couples exchange vows in New Jersey

Toni Yates reports from Hoboken
October 21, 2013 2:36:01 PM PDT
Gay couples in a handful of New Jersey communities exchanged marriage vows in the first minutes of Monday, becoming the first to take advantage of a court ruling that forced the state to become the 14th in the nation to recognize same-sex nuptials.

As the wedding began, Gov. Chris Christie dropped his legal challenge to same-sex marriages on Monday, removing the possibility that the vows of couples could be undone by a court.

New Jersey became the 14th state to allow gay marriages Monday, three days after the state Supreme Court unanimously rejected Christie's request to delay the start of the nuptials. He has said residents, not a court or legislators, should decide on the issue.

"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," Christie's spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement. "The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court."

The announcement came from a Republican governor who is a possible 2016 presidential candidate and has for years opposed gay marriage while supporting the state's previous civil union law.

It was met with jubilation from gay rights advocates including Steven Goldstein, the founder and former leader of Garden State Equality, who asked "How much happiness can I stand?" Conversely, conservatives like National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown scorned the legalization of gay weddings.

"This is just another example of the courts making law out of thin air," he said. "Obviously, Christie should have continued the lawsuit."

Brown said his group could look into whether it could continue the legal fight that Christie dropped but said he doubts the courts would allow anyone to intervene.

The decision caught some by surprise, but not Larry Lustberg, one of the lawyers on the case on behalf of gay couples and Garden State Equality. "The handwriting was on the wall as clearly as it could possibly be. The governor had always said he would fight this all the way up to the Supreme Court, but he didn't say he was going to fight it in the Supreme Court twice," he said in a conference call. "This was inevitable."

The ceremonies began in Lambertville, where Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey smiled in the same crowded municipal courtroom where almost seven years ago they became one of the first couples in the state joined in a civil union.

"We remained optimistic and hopeful that we would be able to gather together to do the right thing, the just thing, and see our two friends get married," Mayor Dave DelVecchio, who led both the 2007 ceremony and Monday's, said before leading the couple of 27 years through their vows as their 13-year-old daughter served as the flower girl.

"We're floating on air," Asaro, in a salmon pink suit, said afterward. "It's like winning the Super Bowl," said her wife, who wore a black pant suit.

At Newark's City Hall, where seven gay couples and two heterosexual couples were wed, there was a brief disruption from a protester who cried out, "This is unlawful in the eyes of God and Jesus Christ," before Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat elected last week to the U.S. Senate, declared Gabriela Celeiro and Liz Salerno "lawful spouses." After the protester was removed, the mayor, choking up, paused, put his hand over his heart and said, "This is very beautiful."

The ceremonies joined couples that have been together years, and in some cases decades, in hastily arranged ceremonies that remained in doubt until Friday when a unanimous state Supreme Court rejected Christie's administration's request to delay the implementation date of same-sex weddings.

Last month, a lower-court judge ruled that New Jersey must recognize gay marriages starting Monday.

A few minutes before midnight Sunday in Jersey City, Mayor Steve Fulop gathered eight couples in the front of the city council chambers to conduct a swift mass ceremony.

"I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime," said Barbara Milton after she was married to Kay Osborn. "To have this moment of equality is overwhelming."

The newlyweds and their friends and family went into the City Hall rotunda after the ceremony for champagne and cake. As they posed for a photo with the mayor, someone yelled out, "Kiss!" and all eight couples did.

The couples married Monday can receive all the state and federal benefits of marriage, giving them benefits and protections including being allowed to file tax returns jointly and Social Security survivor benefits.

The first ceremonies also served as celebrations for gay rights advocates and their allies in the Legislature.

Three state lawmakers were at Asaro and Schailey's ceremony, including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, the state's first openly gay lawmaker and a prime sponsor of a bill to allow gay marriage.

One couple married in the first minute of the day - possibly the first in the state - was Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin, a couple for more than 20 years who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit pressing to allow same-sex marriage. Their ceremony in Elizabeth was at the home of state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of the main legislative champions of gay marriage. Another state senator, Loretta Weinberg, gave the couple away. And Steven Goldstein, the founder and former leader of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's most prominent gay rights group, gave a prayer.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)


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