February 18, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Along with his veto, Christie has called for a referendum on the issue in November while simultaneously issuing insert-foot-here arguments suggesting that African-American civil rights leaders would have been “happy” to have a referendum on their rights. While the governor has accused Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature of political theater, the truth is that either both sides of the issue in New Jersey are guilty of that charge, or neither are.
Supporters of the bill are taking a long-term strategy towards bringing marriage equality to the Garden State with a plan to gain enough support by 2014 to override the governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in both houses of the legislature. Assembly Democrats have stated that they would have had two more votes in favor of marriage equality if two Republican members who were on vacation had taken part in Thursday’s vote. That means supporters will have to court 10 more votes in the Assembly and three more in the Senate to override the veto.
Christie’s calculus on the issue is not difficult to ascertain. As Steven Goldstein, Chair of Garden State Equality, said in a statement:
[Christie] won’t veto the bill because he’s anti-gay. He’ll veto the bill because the 2016 South Carolina Republican Presidential primary electorate is anti-gay. And if I get flooded with letters now from Charleston, so be it.
But despite Gov. Christie’s perhaps wise political choice regarding his future career, his veto threat may in fact be an dereliction of the duty pertaining to his current career. As Tobias Wolff, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, astutely pointed out in an e-mail to Prop8TrialTracker.com’s Adam Bink:
The New Jersey Supreme Court decided, unanimously, that same-sex couples are entitled to fully equal treatment under the New Jersey Constitution. Experience has demonstrated that civil unions fail to provide that fully equal treatment. In enacting a marriage equality bill, the New Jersey legislature is fulfilling a constitutional mandate from the State’s highest court.
The case that Professor Wolff is referring to is Lewis v. Harris, a 2006 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that gay and lesbian couples in the state were entitled to the same equal protection as heterosexual couples. In its ruling, the court stated:
We have decided that our State Constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples. Now the Legislature must determine whether to alter the long accepted definition of marriage.
This week, the Legislature did just that, determining that keeping the term ‘marriage’ from gay and lesbian couples is an unfair burden on those couples’ relationships. In 2008, a Civil Union Review Commission comprised of clergy, lawyers, lawmakers and marriage equality activists unanimously recommended that New Jersey provide marriages to same-sex couples, saying that “civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey.”
By vetoing the marriage equality bill that the New Jersey legislature passed this week, Gov. Christie has expressly reneged on his constitutional responsibility to confer “every statutory right and benefit” to same-sex couples, and he has thwarted the power of the Legislature, provided by the state’s Supreme Court in 2006, to make the decision to provide the equal rights that Lewis mandated.
With his conditional veto, Christie is clearly trying to have it both ways on the issue of marriage equality. In his statement, the governor said, “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.” He also called for creating an ombudsman position that would look into complaints lodged by couples that they have been discriminated against despite having entered into civil unions.
But as Judge Stephen Reinhardt so eloquently put it in his ruling striking down California’s Proposition 8 at the 9th Circuit, it is impossible to claim that gay and lesbian couples in civil unions deserve “the very same rights and benefits” as couples in marriages, while simultaneously arguing that they do not have the right to the term ‘marriage.’ The math here is not complex: either gay couples have all the same rights as straight couples, or they have all the same rights minus one–the right to call their unions what they really are.
Gov. Christie’s veto is not merely a matter of personal choice or a difference of opinion. It is one man, disagreeing with other two branches of government in his state, making a conscious decision to withhold equal protection from a class of its citizens.