TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie dropped his legal challenge to same-sex marriages on Monday, removing the possibility that the vows of couples who began getting married hours earlier 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 letter detailing Christie's decision, from the Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman to the Supreme Court, was just two sentences and didn't get into detail.
Goldstein said advocates for same-sex marriage still have work to do. He said lawmakers must adopt a law codifying same-sex marriage to clarify three points that are left unaddressed in court decisions. The court rulings do not say whether civil unions should be converted to marriages, does not say whether religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus can reject hosting weddings on their property and does not spell out whether legal out-of-state marriages of gay couples are automatically recognized in New Jersey.
Last year, the state Legislature passed a law to allow gay marriage and deal with those issues, but Christie vetoed it.
Advocates have been making a major push to override the veto before a Jan. 14 deadline. Before Christie's announcement Monday, they were expecting a vote by lawmakers sometime after the Nov. 5 election.
But Hayley Gorenberg, a Lambda Legal lawyer who was co-counsel in the court case, said on a conference call Monday that the veto override is not needed. "I think we're done here," she said. She addressed one of the points left unanswered in the court rulings, saying that the First Amendment provides the necessary religious protection for clergy who do not want to preside over ceremonies of same-sex couples.
New Jersey's courts and politicians have been deliberating over whether to allow gay marriage for more than a decade. The answer has changed quickly in the past month.
In September, a state judge ruled that New Jersey must allow the nuptials in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made the federal government recognize same-sex marriage.
The state's top court ruled Friday afternoon that it would not delay Monday's implementation date.
And at 12:01 a.m., couples in a handful of communities wed.
In Newark, Mayor Cory Booker, in one of his last acts before joining the U.S. Senate in coming weeks, led a ceremony for seven gay couples and two heterosexual couples.
"Tonight we have crossed a barrier, and now, while you all have fallen into love, I want to say that the truth is, that the state of New Jersey has risen to love," he said. "This state now is resonant now with the core values of our county, with the idea that there is no second class citizenship in America, that we're all equal under the law."
In Lambertville, Joanne Shcailey and Beth Asaro were wed in a municipal courtroom packed with friends, family and journalists.
"We're floating on air," Asaro, in a salmon pink suit, said afterward. "It's like winning the Super Bowl," said Schailey, who wore a black suit.