New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie distanced himself from many of his fellow Republican presidential candidates this week by taking a contrary position on the question of how LGBT nondiscrimination protections interact with religious liberty.
At the Presidential Soapbox, set up by the Des Moines Register at the Iowa State Fair, Christie spoke on Saturday about his belief that “religious freedom” laws should not enable businesses to discriminate against customers.
“Religious organizations should be protected from having to do anything that violates their religious beliefs as a religious organization. That should be protected,” he explained. “But other businesses who want to do business, they should have to be able to do business under the laws of our country.”
Calling for a “country of laws where everyone is treated equally,” Christie said that even though “religious organizations absolutely should be protected” and “everyone should freely practice their religion the way they see fit,” he still believes that “businesses should not be allowed to discriminate.”
Christie did not specifically reference LGBT people or wedding vendors, but that is the primary context in which conversations about religious liberty and businesses discriminating have been taking place. He did, however, reference his oath to upholding New Jersey’s laws, which includes its nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. In fact, New Jersey has offered protections based on “affectional or sexual orientation” since 1991; “gender identity and expression” were added in 2006.
There hasn’t been a recent wedding vendor discrimination case in New Jersey, but it was home to one of the first supposed conflicts between gay rights and religious liberty. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a religious organization, operated a boardwalk pavilion that was protected by a “Green Acres” real-estate tax exemption, a property subsidy for conservation or recreational purposes. When the Association refused to let a same-sex couple reserve the pavilion for a civil union ceremony, the couple sued. The Association lost, because they were in violation of the exemption, which required that they provide equal access to the public. Conservatives still cite the Ocean Grove case as an example of a violation of “religious liberty,” but they usually leave out the coda: the Association later obtained a tax exemption for the pavilion under its status as a religious organization and is now free to control its usage, just as Christie believes religious organizations should be able to do.
Christie’s apparent position against religious-based discrimination reflects his mixed record on LGBT issues. Recently, for the second time during his years as governor, Christie vetoed a bill that would have allowed transgender people to obtain accurate birth certificates without undergoing expensive, sterilizing transition surgeries. He laughed off the idea of respecting these individuals’ identities as “beyond the pale.”
Christie has also been a vocal opponent of marriage equality. Though he ultimately decided not to continue the fight after state courts overturned New Jersey’s ban on same-sex marriage, he still argued that the Republican Party should keep fighting marriage equality. He had previously vetoed marriage equality legislation, arguing that marriage equality has nothing to do with gay rights, that opposing same-sex marriage is “not bigoted,” and that even if one of his children came out as gay, he’d still teach them that “marriage is between one man and one woman.”
On the other hand, Christie also signed into law a ban on ex-gay therapy for minors, for which he was attacked by conservatives. New Jersey is still one of only four states with such bans and it was only the second at the time. Even back in 2011, he said that he believed people are born gay and that being gay is not a sin.
Christie’s position on whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate distances him from many other Republican candidates — most notably Ted Cruz, who has made “religious liberty” a centerpiece of his campaign. But Christie’s remarks also buck the Republican National Committee, which recently endorsed legislation that would protect businesses who discriminate against same-sex couples from penalization from the federal government.