On Thursday, February 16, NJ’s Assembly passed a bill with a vote of 24-16, to legalize same sex marriage statewide. Governor Chris Christie, as promised, vetoed the bill shortly after it arrived in his office.
Some do not believe that Christie vetoed the bill due to his being anti-gay, but because of his political ambitions as a Republican.
In an interview with The VOICE, NJ Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson, who represents the 14th district (which includes Hamilton and much of Mercer County), said that part of the reason for Christie’s veto of the bill came from his political aspirations. “If he does decide to run for higher office he would be the first Republican governor to approve this type of bill.”
Mercer Professor of Business Johnathan Rowe, who is both a gay man and a lawyer, echoes assemblyman Benson’s views saying, “I don’t think Christie is anti-gay; but it is dangerous, politically, especially for a Republican who may have national political ambitions, to come out in favor of full marriage equality for same sex couples.”
Instead of agreeing to the bill that was passed by the legislature, Governor Christie has decided the the best way to decide on gay marriage in New Jersey is to put it to a referendum vote on the ballot this November. He has said that an “An issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide,” according to Kate Zernike’s New York Times article titled “Christie Keeps his Promise to Veto Gay Marriage Bill.”
Issues put forth in a referendum are typically not issues involving individual or constitutional rights, however. Legal scholars have argued for decades that issues like civil rights would never have passed referendum votes in much of the country when they were originally enacted by President Johnson back in 1964.
Benson expressed his disagreement with Christie’s idea of a referendum. “I think it sets a really dangerous precedent when you do a referendum on giving rights to a minority group. It’s really not the proper place for it to be done. It should be done through the legislature,” he said.
In NJ in 2006 the court case Lewis v. Harris elicited a declaration from the New Jersey Supreme Court that said barring the rights and benefits of marriage violated the constitutional rights of same sex couples. The NJ legislature then created the “separate” status of civil unions. Many people however, do not understand civil unions.
According to an article titled “Civil Unions for Same-Sex Couples in the State of New Jersey” on www.lambdalegal.org, Civil unions are defined as: “The legally recognized union of two individuals of the same sex. Civil union couples receive the legal benefits and protections and are subject to the legal responsibilities provided under New Jersey law to married couples. But a civil union is not a marriage.”
James Reslier Wells, co-president of Mercer’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered and Friends Club or LGBTF (also a VOICE reporter), gave his opinion on the “separate, but equal” policy put forth by civil unions saying, “It’s time for New Jersey to end the discrimination and ‘separate-but-equal’ bullshit and move on to debating problems that actually warrant the level of bureaucratic wrangling that this has incurred. As a clear-cut civil rights issue, there should never have been any debate in the fist place.”
In addition to the unions themselves not being problematic, Assemblyman Benson notes that the status of civil unions affects the children of lesbians and gay men as well.
Benson said, “I think the argument that these children are making is even if their parents, from a legal stand point, get the same thing, they are still not getting the same treatment. You can’t change that unless you have a similar nomenclature where you use the same word that people readily understand. Children don’t understand when you say my parents aren’t married, they’re civil unioned. Even the average person still doesn’t understand what that means.”
Christie’s veto put an end to legislative action for the present. An override will have to be achieved by noon on Jan. 14, 2014 since this is the end of this legislative session. When
asked if he thinks equality for same sex couples will be achieved by this deadline, Benson expressed high hopes.
“The goal is to override the veto before the session ends. The senate [still needs to gather] about three votes to override it. They would need to flip two Democratic votes and maybe one more Republican. That is going to be a high hurdle to begin with, but I think it’s possible. The bigger questions is can we get the assembly to find an additional eleven votes? That may be the harder path to follow, but two years is a long time in politics.”
Wells of the LGBTF is ready to fight this issue in the upcoming months. “I can certainly hope that the veto will be overridden by the end of 2014, but hope alone is not going to ensure success. The next year and nine months are going to require a lot of effort and, and you can be sure that the LGBTF will be on the front lines of this fight.”
When asked specifically about the atmosphere at Mercer, Wells adds: “To my knowledge there is no concerted opposition to marriage equality, nor any of the other efforts for social justice for the entire queer community. These days, most of what we find we have to deal with is scattered ignorance–it can certainly be hurtful, but it is definitely not an organized opposition to our efforts.”