At Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) squared off against his opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) on a number of issues, including marriage equality. Buono challenged Christie on comments he made at a diner earlier in the day, suggesting same-sex marriage was an issue no different than guns or taxes. He was disagreeing with a voter who described it as a human rights issue and he told her that not even a gay friend or family member could sway him on the matter. In the debate, Christie replied that he saw the issue as just a “political agenda”:
BUONO: Governor, show a profile in courage and do the right thing for our sons and our daughters, our brothers and our sisters. This is a human right and it really should not be on the ballot. We should not have the majority of the people decide the minority’s rights. It’s just wrong.
CHRISTIE: Thirty-five other states — 35 of the 50 — have put this question on the ballot, and so the idea that this should never be on the ballot is something that is against what 35 other states have done. I trust the people of New Jersey to make this judgment. I don’t trust 121 politicians with political agendas. […]
BUONO: My daughter, who is openly gay, is not a political agenda.
Watch the full debate (marriage discussion is cued up at 5:09):
Christie has always claimed that he’d prefer a referendum to justify his veto of state legislature’s marriage equality bill. But his claim that many other states have followed a similar path ignores the context in which those other states brought for their referenda. With only one exception (Maine), all of those referenda were brought forward by opponents of marriage equality seeking to ban it or prevent its legalization. In Maine, the legislature passed marriage equality in 2009, but it, too, was overturned by a referendum brought by opponents. A pro-equality referendum was then pursued in 2012 because it was then the only viable route to legalize same-sex marriage.
This omission is not surprising given Christie’s past comments. After he first issued his veto, Christie claimed that voting on civil rights was a good thing and African Americans would have been better off if that’s how the civil rights movement had advanced — instead of through deadly protests. He quickly had to apologize for such comments, especially after African-American leaders like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) pointed out that Christie “has not read his recent history books” because most of the Southern governors were “outright segregationists.” Nevertheless, Christie remained adamant about a referendum on marriage equality, calling it the “bargain of your life!”
Referenda on same-sex marriage carry a big cost for the gay community. Not only do they require enormous funding, but the rhetoric used in them has a measurable impact on the psychological stress on gays and lesbians, even those who do not directly engage with the campaign. Given a New Jersey judge just delivered a significant legal victory for marriage equality, a referendum would be an unnecessary burden on the state. Christie has appealed that victory, but a new poll shows that nearly two-thirds of New Jersey voters would prefer he let the decision stand.