New Jersey's black leaders Wednesday lambasted Gov. Chris Christie for saying that people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.
"Governor, people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method," The Associated Press quoted Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, as saying Wednesday.
Oliver's hint that Christie lacked historical understanding was in response to his remarks which came after the Democrat-led state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 in favor of the bill, titled Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, Tuesday. "The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South," he said.
"It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans," Oliver said.
After the committee's Tuesday vote, Christie said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, adding that he would welcome a referendum on the November ballot to ask voters to decide on the issue. However, Christie sought to defend his remarks at a press conference in Trenton, N.J., Wednesday.
"My point is, they're trying to say the only way to deal with a civil rights issue is through legislation, and my point is that in a state like this, the fact of the matter is their own polling belies that position," he said.
But black leaders argue that civil rights do not belong to the ballot. "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 a popular votes in our 50 states," Newark Mayor Cory Booker said.
Jerome Harris, chairman of the N.J. Black Issues Convention, joined in criticizing Christie. He pointed out that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to "overcome the systemic, intentional racial suppression of the black vote."
"It's certainly a lack of historical understanding about how the expanding definition of who 'We the People' are has happened. Sometimes it takes bold acts of defiance by the minority."
While the focus has now shifted to Christie's linking of civil rights to gay marriage vote, he has more importantly said, "It's the institution of marriage and it's bigger than just a word, it's hundreds of years of tradition both legally and societally and religiously and that's what I stand up in protecting."
The Legislature, he says, should be willing to trust the people the way he is willing to trust the people.
The N.J. gay marriage bill provides for religious exemptions to clergy, who can refuse to perform same-sex marriages without fear of legal penalty or lawsuits. A similar clause is included for any "religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof" who chooses to refuse services for same-sex couples seeking to get married.
A Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 19 found that 52 percent of New Jersey residents are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.
However, Len Deo, president of the pro-family New Jersey Family Policy Council, refuted the poll, saying it did not accurately represent the wishes of the state's voters.
"What [voters] said is they supported marriage equality, the question that they didn't ask the people is 'Did you know same-sex marriage gets all the rights and benefits of [traditional] marriage?'" Deo told The Christian Post in an earlier interview. "I think the potential is there for marriage to be protected in our state."