Governor Chris Christie drops New Jersey challenge to same-sex marriage

Republican's decision is culmination of a dizzying few weeks for gay wedding advocates in the state

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey widely tipped to seek his party's presidential nomination in 2016, bowed to the will of the courts today and said he was withdrawing his objections to his state becoming the fourteenth in the United States to allow gay marriage.

His decision is the culmination of a dizzying few weeks for gay marriage advocates in New Jersey. In September a lower court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage but Mr Christie filed an appeal to the State Supreme Court. But on Friday the Supreme Court said that marriages should be able to begin pending the outcome of that appeal. Because of a 72-hour waiting period rule that led to a flurry of marriages held one minute after midnight Monday.

Friday's decision by the state's highest court was unanimous and it apparently became obvious to Mr Christie that his appeal, that was to be heard in January, was bound to fail. He has always made clear his personal opposition to gay marriage and said if he would only approve it if it found majority support in a state-wide referendum.

The lower court had issued its ruling to the effect that not allowing same sex marriage contravened the state Constitution. It came in the wake of the US Supreme Court earlier in the summer striking down the Defense of Marriage Act that had said that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. The ruling ensured for the first time that same sex couples became eligible for the same federal benefits afforded to straight married couples.

"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," his office 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."

Mr Christie is expected to win easy re-election in November for a second four-year term as governor and had he offered his own personal support for gay marriage it almost certainly wouldn't have harmed his prospects. The topic is far more toxic on the national stage, however, where any such liberal stance would be bound to draw the ire of conservatives and the tea party right. To that extent, the actions of the courts gave him convenient cover.

Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark who was elected to the US Senate last week, officiated at the first just-past-midnight gay marriage in City Hall. "This is very beautiful," he said after declaring Gabriela Celeiro and Liz Salerno "lawful spouses". The ceremony was briefly disrupted by a protester who cried out: "This is unlawful in the eyes of God and Jesus Christ".

In Lambertville, a small town favoured by tourists on the Delaware River, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey, who have been together for 27 years, also took middle-of-the-night marriage vows in the same municipal courtroom where seven years ago they were 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. The couple's 13-year-old daughter served as the flower girl.

It is nine years since Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriage. In the years since, the debate has moved swiftly, notably with the repeal of Don't ask, Don't tell in the military and President Barack Obama's declaration last spring that he had come round to supporting it.  But while same-sex marriage is now recognised by the federal government, fourteen states and the District of Columbia, it remains prohibited in nearly every other state either by law or by virtue of their constitutions.

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