BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Friday conditionally vetoed Democratic-sponsored legislation that would have legalized gay marriage in New Jersey, and again called for the issue to be decided by the voters and not the legislators they elected,
The governor also proposed the creation of a state civil unions ombudsman in an attempt to ensure that same-sex couples are not be discriminated against under New Jersey’s controversial civil union law.
Democrats who control the Legislature have stated they will not send Christie legislation setting a ballot referendum, declaring a civil rights issue should not be decided by popular vote. Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) vowed Friday that the upper house will override the veto.
“Today, I am adhering to what I’ve said since this bill (S-1) 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. “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 governor added. “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. The ombudsman will be charged with increasing awareness of the law regarding civil unions, will provide a clear point of contact for those who have questions or concerns and will be required to report any evidence of the law being violated. In this way, we can ensure equal treatment under the law.”
Democratic sponsors of the “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act” expressed their disappointment over Christie’s conditional veto, and argued the proposed ombudsman position creates an added layer of bureaucracy while still maintaining a “separate but equal” system for same-sex couples in New Jersey.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) was especially angered by the veto.
“Thousands and thousands of New Jersey families are denied financial security, health security and fundamental equal rights every day because of a failed civil union experiment,” Greenwald said. “And yet in spite of their second-class citizenship, the governor single-handedly - -through the stroke of his pen - seeks to codify discrimination against them. Make no mistake about it - when Governor Christie placed his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the constitutions of the United States and New Jersey, he swore also to support and defend the rights of every New Jersey citizen. He has just violated his own oath of office. And in the end, he will answer to every New Jersey citizen for his actions."
The bill, which passed the Assembly by a vote of 42-33 Thursday and the Senate by a vote of 24-16 Monday, would have defined marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting people in a committed relationship, eliminating the civil unions that had been in place since 2007. Democrats maintained the law has failed to provide equal treatment to New Jersey’s same-sex couples.
"Governor Christie's veto is a shameful act hidden behind the guise of a public referendum,” Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. “Today, he firmly planted his feet on the wrong side of history. He certainly does not deserve whatever credit he will probably receive for maintaining his misguided position. He had a chance to do the right thing, and failed miserably. The fight for marriage equality is not over. We will override this veto."
“It’s unfortunate that the governor would let his own personal ideology infringe on the rights of thousands of New Jerseyans,” Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), a prime sponsor of the bill, 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.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) said, “This has, and always will be, a civil rights issue. When we look back in the annals of history, unfortunately, the governor will see that he was on the wrong side of justice. All the couples disappointed by his action today should take solace in the fact that we are not giving up this fight.”
Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union), a prime sponsor of the measure, said, "The governor's failed attempt to rewrite his record on basic equal rights for same-sex couples is a smokescreen. As our Senate president has articulated, time and time again, the rights of same-sex couples do not belong on a ballot question. The only way to ensure equal rights for same-sex couples is to show leadership and pass the bill as is.
“Now that the governor has followed through on his promise to undercut marriage equality, it is up to us to follow through on our promise to work to override his misguided action," Lesniak said. "Belief in marriage equality is a matter of individual conscience, not a plank in a party platform. Now, we're going to go about rewriting the state's history. In the final chapter, doing what's right always prevails over doing what's politically expedient.”
The legislation would have also expressly stipulated that no clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage, nor any religious society, institution or organization in the state, would be required to conduct any marriage in violation of their free exercise of religion.
On Monday, Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage. It is also legal in the District of Columbia.