New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he would abide by the results of a voter referendum on gay marriage, even though he personally opposes the practice.
Christie, a first-term Republican, said he would veto a bill allowing same-sex couples to wed and would vote against it if the question was on the ballot in the November election. A referendum is an “alternative path” to resolving the issue in New Jersey, Christie said.
“We all know how this movie is going to end,” Christie, 49, told reporters today in Trenton. “If they pass the bill, and they know this, it’s going to be vetoed. If they attempt to override that, the veto will be sustained. And they know that, so I’m trying to give them an alternate movie.”
If the issue is put to voters and it passes, New Jersey would be the first U.S. state where gays win the right to wed directly from the public. Court rulings or legislation led to the change in the six states and the District of Columbia where it’s already legal. Voters have rejected legalization in all 31 referendums on the issue, according to Freedom to Marry, a New York-based national advocacy organization.
At least four other states are tackling the issue this year. Lawmakers in Washington and Maryland plan to push bills to make same-sex marriage legal, while voters in North Carolina and Minnesota will be asked to bar the practice through constitutional amendments.
Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, signed a measure in 2006 to allow civil unions, after the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to extend marital rights to gay couples. The law is being challenged in state court by Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group, which argues that it doesn’t provide the same benefits and protections as marriage.
Two years ago, Democrats who control both the Senate and Assembly failed to pass a gay-marriage bill, even as Corzine promised to sign it. The measure, which needed 21 votes in the Senate for approval, was defeated 20-14 with three abstaining, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney. He later said he made a mistake in not voting.
Democrats have made the issue a top priority in 2012, and said they have enough votes to pass it. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill yesterday, prompting the veto threat from Christie, who said he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said gay marriage is a civil-rights matter that shouldn’t be held “hostage to the whims of a political campaign.”
The referendum suggestion from Christie, who has been campaigning for presidential candidate Mitt Romney after deciding against his own White House bid last year, is a “cowardly display of national political ambition gone haywire,” Sweeney said in a statement today.
“The governor may not have said it directly, but yesterday saw the official opening of his campaign for vice president,” Sweeney said. “There’s only one reason for the governor to abandon his moral compass so quickly, and that’s to bulk up his conservative bona fides in a transparent audition for a Mitt Romney-Chris Christie ticket.”
Ellen Ann Andersen, author of “Out of the Closets & Into the Courts,” a book about the legal struggles for gay rights, said New Jersey’s position as a “kid cousin” to larger New York makes it a prominent bellwether. Unlike North Carolina and Minnesota, she said same-sex marriage may have a “fighting shot” if it was on the ballot in the Garden State.
Public support for changing the law in New Jersey reached a high of 52 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Jan. 19. The issue had support from 41 percent of voters in a 2006 poll by the Hamden, Connecticut-based polling institute.
Andersen, who is married to another woman under Vermont law, said that heterosexual allies of same-sex marriage don’t always turn out on election day and those who signal support in polling often vote against gay marriage.
“Any way it goes for him at this point, there’s a bit of a gamble on his end,” said Andersen, 44, who focuses on the politics of sexuality as a professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “If he doesn’t want to see marriage equality in New Jersey, he has two choices: One, he can veto the measure and hope there isn’t a veto-proof majority; or two, he can try to pull it out of the Legislature to kill it.”
Christie said his intent with advocating for the public vote wasn’t to deflect backlash from either side and he hoped to have the referendum take place in November, during a presidential election year when turnout would be the greatest.
“This is a significant change in societal, legal and religious traditions for hundreds of years,” Christie said. “I never inoculate myself from criticism. I’m the governor of New Jersey. There’s nothing you can do to inoculate yourself from criticism. When I wake up in the morning, I’m criticized and when I go to bed I’m criticized.”