Christie’s veto halts New Jersey marriage-equality effort

As promised, New Jersey Gov. vetoed on Friday the same-sex marriage bill passed by the Assembly a day earlier and the state Senate on Monday. He renewed his call for the issue to be put to a statewide referendum, and also offered to appoint an ombudsman to make sure that couples entered into state-sanctioned civil unions receive all rights afforded married couples.

“I am adhering to what I’ve said since this bill was first introduced – an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide,” Christie said in a statement. “I continue to encourage the Legislature to trust the people of New Jersey and seek their input by allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change. This is the only path to amend our State Constitution and the best way to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage in our state.

“I have been just as adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples – as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits,” the statement continued. “Discrimination should not be tolerated and any complaint alleging a violation of a citizen’s right should be investigated and, if appropriate, remedied. To that end, I include in my conditional veto the creation of a strong Ombudsman for Civil Unions to carry on New Jersey’s strong tradition of tolerance and fairness.”

In anticipation of Christie’s veto, WHYY NewsWorks political blogger Dick Polman sought to put Christie’s moves in political context, in a radio interview on NewsWorks Tonight and in his own blog, National Interest. In a nutshell, Polman says that if Christie wanted to sustain his vice presidential ambitions this year, and especially his presidential prospects for 2016, he had to veto the bill. Polman writes, “There’s no way a northeastern governor can woo the right-wing base after signing off on a bill that outlaws bigotry. He would forever be typecast, among gay-averse conservatives, as the Republican In Name Only who destroyed the institution of marriage.”

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The same conclusion was drawn by one of the bill’s foremost champions, Steven Goldstein, chairman of the state’s largest gay rights group, Garden State Equality.

“He won’t veto the bill because he’s anti-gay,” Goldstein said in a Friday statement before the veto. “He’ll veto the bill because the 2016 South Carolina presidential primary electorate is anti-gay.”

But Goldstein was undeterred: “[W]e will win, so help me God,” he said.

The New Jersey Democrats who pushed the bill through said they were disappointed, but not surprised. The Republican governor had threatened the veto from the moment state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Thorofare) vowed to pass the bill and make it his top priority.

“He had a chance to do the right thing, and failed miserably,” Sweeney said after Christie’s veto.

Reed Gusciora, a bill sponsor who is one of two openly gay New Jersey lawmakers, said, “For all those who oppose marriage equality, their lives would have been completely unchanged by this bill, but for same-sex couples, their lives would have been radically transformed. Unfortunately, the governor couldn’t see past his own personal ambitions to honor this truth.”

Proponents of the bill said gay marriage is a civil right being denied to gay couples, while opponents said the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution should not be expanded. The legislation contains a religious opt-out clause, meaning no church clergy would be required to perform gay marriages and places of worship would not have to allow same-sex weddings at their facilities.

Thirty states, including South Carolina, have adopted constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages, most by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Six states and Washington, D.C., allow gay marriage. Washington state’s new gay marriage law is set to go into effect in June.

Lawmakers in New Jersey have until the end of the legislative session in January 2014 to override the veto.

They would need two-thirds of the lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate to agree. Both votes to pass it fell short of that mark. Christie has virtually guaranteed that no override would succeed because Republicans wouldn’t cross him.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has failed in every previous attempt to override Christie, most notably on a cut to women’s health care and an effort to reinstate a tax surcharge on millionaires.

Christie – and most Republican lawmakers – want to put the issue to a public vote, something Democrats oppose. One GOP lawmaker, Sen. Kip Bateman of Somerset, has proposed a ballot question asking voters to allow same-sex nuptials.

Democrats are hoping that support for gay marriage – 52 percent for gay marriage, 42 against it, in New Jersey, according to one recent voter poll – will continue growing.

If same-sex couples can’t win gay marriage through legislation, they have engaged in a parallel fight in the courts. Seven gay couples and several of their children have sued, claiming that the state’s civil union law doesn’t work as intended.

Civil unions were designed to provide the benefits of marriage to gay couples without the title. They were adopted after the Supreme Court instructed the Legislature to provide marriage equality to same-sex couples.

The state’s own review commission has since found problems with the law, and same-sex couples have backed that up with testimony before the Legislature.

John Grant and Daniel Weiss, an Asbury Park couple who are in a civil union, are among those who testified in support of gay marriage.

When Grant was in a life-threatening automobile accident and rushed to a New York hospital in 2010 – before that state legalized gay marriage – Weiss said he couldn’t authorize badly needed surgery or even go through his partner’s wallet to find his health insurance card. He said their civil union was essentially worthless; Grant’s neurosurgeon even asked, “What is a civil union?”

A gay marriage bill was defeated in the Senate two years ago, just before Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who supported the measure, left office. Advocates’ hopes dimmed with the arrival of Christie, who spoke against gay marriage when asked about it during his campaign.

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