Gay rights groups are pinning their hopes on litigation and a possible override vote in the aftermath of Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey.
The governor’s veto of the marriage bill was expected. Christie had pledged to reject the bill and called for a referendum to decide the issue.
According to the Associated Press, Christie said in a statement accompanying his veto that he’s “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.”
“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,” Christie said. “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.”
LGBT groups condemned Christie in response to his veto and pledged to continue the fight to win marriage rights for gay couples.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Christie “planted his feet firmly on the wrong side of history.”
“Fortunately, his ‘no’ will not be America’s – or New Jersey’s – last word,” Wolfson said. “It is simply an obstacle we overcome as we continue on the road to liberty and justice for all.”
Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, issued a statement just prior to Christie’s veto, saying he personally likes the governor, but suspects he vetoed the bill because of his national political ambitions.
“He won’t veto the bill because he’s anti-gay,” Goldstein said. “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.”
Goldstein also lambasted Christie’s call for a referedum, which he said “everyone knows will never happen in New Jersey.”
A poll published Tuesday by Rutgers-Eagelton found 54 percent of New Jersey residents favor legalizing same-sex marriage. At the same time, 53 percent say they back the idea of bringing marriage to a vote, while 40 percent said marriage is a civil rights issues that shouldn’t be decided by voters.
But Christie’s veto of the bill was conditional. It included the creation of what he called an ombudsman for civil unions that he said would “carry on New Jersey’s strong tradition of tolerance and fairness.”
Christie maintained in his statement that he’s been “adamant” that same-sex couples in civil unions, which are legal in New Jersey, deserve the same rights and benefits as married couples.
“Discrimination should not be tolerated and any complaint alleging a violation of a citizen’s right should be investigated and, if appropriate, remedied,” Christie said.
But Goldstein was critical of the idea that a civil unions ombudsman would strengthen the state’s civil union law, calling it “the very essence of the political theater” decried by Christie.
Goldstein raised questions about how a civil union ombudsman would enforce the civil union law. Among them are how the official would help same-sex couples living in New Jersey, but working in New York where same-sex marriage is legal, how it would deal with the children being raised by same-sex couples who feel stigmatized because their parents cannot marry, or how it would help couples in civil unions who aren’t treated fairly by employers and hospitals.
“A civil union ombudsman might well be the country’s first-ever Enforcer of Discrimination — and worse,” Goldstein said. “A civil union ombudsman is nothing more than the shameless dressing up of a veto of people’s dignity and equality — the equivalent of gold-plating a separate water fountain for a specific class of people.”
One option to get around Christie’s veto of the marriage bill is an override vote in the legislature. An override would require 12 additional votes to reach the 54 needed in the Assembly. In the Senate, three more votes are required to reach the necessary 27.
Goldstein said he’s put his organization “immediately to work to achieve an override” of Christie’s veto, noting advocates have nearly two years to do the job.
“The great news is, we have until the end of the legislative session, in January 2014, to do it,” Goldstein said.
Litigation is also underway in New Jersey state courts to win marriage rights for gay couples in New Jersey. In June, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit arguing that barring same-sex couples from marriage and relegating them to civil unions violates the New Jersey Constitution.
Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda’s deputy legal director, said her organization is “disappointed” with Christie, but will continue the fight to win marriage equality with the tools at hand.
“We’ll continue to make our case for equality with our plaintiffs in court,” Gorenberg said. “We also stand by our colleagues at Garden State Equality, working to gain support for a veto override in the legislature.”
In November, Lambda defeated defendants’ attempt to dismiss the case, and the judge ruled it could proceed. A trial is expected early in 2013.