As the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a bill allowing same-sex marriage on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie reiterated that he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, but also said he would welcome a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to decide on the issue.
The Democrat-led committee voted by a margin of 8-4 to pass the bill along; members voted along party lines.
The bill, titled Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, will be read again before moving to the House to be voted on by the State Assembly and Senate.
While the judiciary committee heard testimony from lawmakers and advocacy groups on both sides, Gov. Christie told reporters in Bridgewater, N.J., that he would rather leave the decision on same-sex marriage to the people of New Jersey.
"I think this is not an issue that should rest solely in my hands, or the hands of the Senate President or the Speaker or the other 118 members of the Legislature," Christie said. "Let's let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state."
After previously stating his opposition to same-sex marriage, Christie vowed to veto the measure if it came to him in a bill, but changing the motion to a referendum lets the governor off the hook on what has been a decidedly dicey issue.
"I would hope the Legislature would be willing to trust the people the way I'm willing to trust the people," Christie said. "I think 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."
A Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 19 found that 52 percent of New Jersey residents are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Len Deo, president of the pro-family New Jersey Family Policy Council, rebutted the poll by insisting that it did not accurately represent the wishes of New Jersey 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. "I think the potential is there for marriage to be protected in our state."
Deo accompanied dozens of pro-family supporters to the statehouse in Trenton on Tuesday for the hearing, but acknowledged that gay rights groups, such as Garden State Equality and Human Rights Campaign, had galvanized a much larger crowd.
Garden State Equality president Steven Goldstein wrote on the group's website days before the event asking for civil union couples and LGBT youth to show up in great numbers to support the same-sex marriage bill and to testify before the judiciary committee.
Sen. Raymond Lezniak introduced the bill as the first measure in this year's congressional session – a move by Democrats to show how dedicated they are to redefining marriage. Groups from both sides have expressed optimism and many expected the bill to pass easily through Tuesday's hearing.
Deo, of the NJ Family Policy Council, said he, too, expected the bill to pass, but was proud of the support from Republicans who spoke out in favor of traditional marriage.
"We're not surprised, we know the Democrats had the votes," Deo said. "I think we had a good representation and people who spoke eloquently about retaining marriage as the union of man and woman."
"I was pleased that the Republican side of the committee started to speak about the fact that Christie would want it to go to referendum," he added.
Christie has showed prudence in stating his opinion on same-sex marriage; many say he is balking to forgo judgment as he gains a greater national profile.
"Let's make sure that political maneuvering is not what judges this and let's make sure this is not someone just trying to have fun and create a campaign issue," Christie said. "The institution of marriage is too serious to be treated like a political football."
Deo said the NJ Family Policy Council would support a referendum on the November ballot provided the group "can get the correct language."
Based on current language in the bill, religious exemptions to the proposed bill allow clergy to 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.
The other lawmakers sponsoring the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem).
Six states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage.