Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the U.S. civil-rights movement, joined New Jersey Democrats criticizing Governor Chris Christie after he said blacks in the 1960s would have preferred referendums on desegregation -- a move he has backed for same-sex marriage.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, stopped in the New Jersey capital yesterday to step up pressure on Christie, a first-term Republican. The governor has faced opposition from Democrats in the Legislature, including the state’s two openly gay lawmakers, after saying a week ago that early civil-rights activists “would have been happy to have a referendum.”
The governor, 49, has said he’ll veto any legislation allowing two people of the same gender to wed, and has called for a ballot question in November. Christie said that unlike the South in the 1960s, where prejudice made support for civil rights impossible, advocates of same-sex marriage claim a majority of New Jersey residents supports such legislation now.
“I’ve said over the years that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Lewis, 71, said at a press conference in Trenton, the Associated Press reported.
Blacks and their supporters waged an often bloody struggle to end a system of U.S. laws known as Jim Crow, which created separate facilities for blacks and whites. Advocates for gay marriage claim the current system of civil unions in New Jersey often denies rights to same-sex couples.
Christie turned down requests from Republican donors and party leaders last year to make a run for the White house in November. He said as governor he has no role in a constitutional amendment other than the ability to use the bully pulpit to advocate against it. He said he’d urge Republicans in the Legislature to vote to put it on the ballot to create a “broader process.”
“It’s all in the eyes of the beholder,” he told reporters in Trenton, referring to the civil-rights dispute. “Those people who advocate for it consider it to be a civil right. I do not believe that marriage between two people of the same gender is something that should exist in this state, so my view on it is that we have an honest difference of opinion on this issue.”
Christie told reporters yesterday that a referendum for civil rights in the 1960s would have been impossible.
“They didn’t have that option because public sentiment wasn’t to where it was a realistic option for them; that’s what I said and what I meant,” Christie said. “They’ve equated it to civil rights, not me,” he said of lawmakers backing same-sex marriage.
Democratic leaders in the state have rejected the option of a referendum on gay marriage. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a same-sex marriage bill on Jan. 24, setting it up for a floor vote in the full Senate. An Assembly panel is scheduled to begin debate on the measure on Feb. 2.
“We are elected by the people of New Jersey to protect civil rights,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said in a statement on Jan. 24. “We do not pass on such tough decisions.”
Christie last week said in addition to vetoing any legislation allowing two people of the same gender to wed, he would also vote against any referendum. He said he wouldn’t attempt to overturn the results of a public vote and said a ballot question would give backers a realistic shot at seeing same-sex marriage become law.
Put to Voters
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 marry 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.
Popular support for rewriting New Jersey’s law to allow same-sex weddings reached a high of 52 percent in a Jan. 19 poll from Quinnipiac University.
A slim majority doesn’t guarantee a victory at the ballot box, said M.V. Lee Badgett, research director for the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It’s very difficult; in U.S. history, civil rights referenda have usually been turned down by voters,” Badgett said in a telephone interview. “The only ones you hear talking about holding them in this context are the people who are looking to keep gay couples from marrying.”
Christie’s opponents said he lacks knowledge about the civil-rights movement if he believed blacks and minorities would have achieved equality through a ballot question.
“The governor apparently doesn’t even understand that minorities likely would have been blocked from voting on a civil rights referendum in the South in the 1960s,” Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, a black Democrat who represents Teaneck, said in a statement last week. “You know why? Because they didn’t have civil rights!”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a backer of gay marriage who has allied with the governor on efforts to overhaul urban education and increase charter schools, joined critics of Christie.
“I shudder to think what would have happened if the civil rights gains, heroically established by courageous lawmakers in the 1960s, were instead conveniently left up to popular votes in our 50 states,” Booker said in a statement.
“Equal protection under the law -- for race, religion, gender or sexual orientation -- should not be subject to the most popular sentiments of the day,” he said.
Christie compared the furor over his civil-rights statements to comments he made last April during a dispute with Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck. Christie told reporters they should “take a bat” to Weinberg, 76, for collecting both a public pension and a paycheck as a legislator while knocking others for similar practices.
Neither comment should be taken literally, Christie said yesterday. The governor also called critics, including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a gay Democrat who represents Trenton, “numbnuts” for comparing him to segregationists because of comments he made about civil rights.
“Come on guys -- you’ve got to be able to call B.S. on those kinds of releases,” Christie said to reporters in Trenton, the state capital.
The governor “reverted to name-calling” because he couldn’t take on the issue on its merits, Gusciora said in a statement.
“The governor’s opposition to the civil right of marriage equality is comparable to others who opposed other civil rights,” Gusciora said. “If he doesn’t like the comparison, then he should change his position on marriage equality and sign the bill into law.”
--Editors: Mark Tannenbaum, Stacie Servetah
To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at firstname.lastname@example.org
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