The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act advanced this week in Trenton, when the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 in favor of it. Though it was an encouraging sign for supporters of the bill, Gov. Christie has vowed to veto any marriage equality bill that reaches his desk. Instead this week he suggested putting the issue on the ballot and settling the matter by public referendum.
Not surprisingly, there has been some outcry to Christie’s proposed handling of the controversial issue, which many people liken to tossing the political hot potato into the hands of the people.
“I find it extremely offensive that Christie suggests the matter should be open to public referendum,” stated Bloomfield attorney CJ Griffin, a former legal intern of the Civil Union Review Commission (CURC) at the NJ Division on Civil Rights. “Basic civil rights should never, ever be up for a vote. Can you imagine the lack of progress we would have in this country if we had allowed each of the 50 states to vote on the various pieces of civil rights legislation in the 1960's? We would be a totally different country. Certain human rights should not be based on the whims, emotions, or prejudices of the populace.”
“A public referendum? On an issue of civil rights? Are you kidding?” outraged blogger and pastor Eliot Daly wrote in the Huffington Post.
“The normally blunt-speaking Governor . . . expressed his serene confidence that the people of the state would do the right thing as surely, and perhaps even more surely, than the legislature. Oh, please, Governor. Tell us you don't really believe that.
“The duplicity of his rationale is insulting. Everyone knows Christie is a really smart guy, plenty smart enough to know that we Americans for centuries have been perfectly happy to inflict pain on our fellow citizens whom we disdain.”
But there are those who believe Christie is doing the right thing.
"I agree with the Governor that this should go to referendum. The people of New Jersey should decide on this issue," declared Bloomfield resident Sue Ann Penna, Executive Director of the grassroots organization, Citizens for Limited Government.
Christine James, a Montclair resident, concurred. "I think it's great that he is willing to put it to a vote instead of legislation deciding. The people really need a direct voice on this issue to be truly represented and recognized."
Some lawmakers, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, believe it will never come down to a public referendum. Dismissing the very notion at Tuesday’s hearing, Sweeney quipped, “We vote on issues here. We don’t put civil rights on the ballot.”
Quoted by South Brunswick Patch on Thursday, his remarks followed a rally by supporters of same sex marriage that was so well-attended the overflow crowd filled a second committee hearing room in the Statehouse Annex.
“Numerous people who entered into civil unions, which passed in December 2006 in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that New Jersey had to stop discriminating against gay couples, said that law is not working and they are still discriminated against, particularly in the area of healthcare,” stated the article.
Montclair Mayor Jerry Fried expressed the sentiment that New Jersey will follow other states where same-sex marriage has been legalized, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional to prevent it.
"It's much better if the legislature does it, but marriage equality WILL happen in NJ, and soon," said the mayor.
In the meantime, until a floor vote on the matter is taken in March, a protracted political standoff is likely. While recent polls show a majority of New Jerseyans support the right of same-sex couples to wed, the numbers on both sides of the issue are close enough to keep lawmakers deadlocked on the issue. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, fifty-two percent of Garden State voters think same-sex couples should have the right to marry, while forty-two percent think they should not.
Shelley Emling contributed to this article.