Chris Christie Fights Back in NJ 'Gay Marriage Referendum' Debate

Civil Rights Leader John Lewis Joins Criticism of 'Civil Rights Referendum' Comparison

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fought back against criticism of comments he made last week where he was accused of comparing the state's gay marriage debate to the tumultuous civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

"What was I attempting to juxtapose was that the advocates of same-sex marriage say the reason for doing this, in part, is because the public of New Jersey wants it. So I said 'Okay, have a referendum and prove it.'" Christie told reporters.

Christie's misunderstood comments came last week when he said, "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."

Civil rights member and Georgia Congressman John Lewis is one of those who have criticized him for those comments. Lewis spoke alongside several New Jersey lawmakers at a Monday afternoon press conference.

"We would never have won (with a referendum)," Lewis told the crowd. "The actions of Congress and executive orders brought down those signs that said 'colored only' and 'whites only.'"

Lewis spoke outside the Trenton Train Station alongside U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson.

"Apparently the governor of the state has not read his recent history books," Lewis said. "I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma."

Lewis was referring to an episode of violence dubbed "Bloody Sunday" where police battered and tear-gassed civil rights protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965.

When hearing of Lewis' visit to the state, Christie said he would "clear my calendar to see him."

Legalizing same-sex marriage has become the focal point for Democrats in the New Jersey legislature since the group introduced a bill, Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, as the first measure in the new term.

Christie has clearly and repeatedly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage and said he would veto a bill if it came to his desk.

Democrats in the state believe they have the requisite two-thirds of voters in the Senate and Assembly to overturn the governor's veto, but Christie has called for the measure to be sent to referendum so voters can decide.

"For the governor to say a referendum should replace courage - that shows he doesn't understand history," said Rep. Holt at the news conference.

Newark Mayor Corey Booker weighed in last week saying the governor is wrong to assume a popular vote would have yielded the same results for the civil rights movement as it would for contemporary same-sex proponents.

"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," Booker told

However, Christie shot back earlier Monday at the numerous attacks including those from Assemblyman Reed Gusciora who the governor called "numbnuts."

"The political climate in the South didn't give them the option to have a referendum back then," Christie told reporters. "They wished they would have had the option, but the political climate did not permit it, meaning they would not win."

"What was I attempting to juxtapose was that the advocates of same-sex marriage say the reason for doing this, in part, is because the public of New Jersey wants it. So I said 'Okay, have a referendum and prove it.'" Christie told reporters.

"What I said was, juxtaposed against the civil rights movement where it was not an option for them because the political climate in the south in that period of time would not have permitted a referendum from any chance of passage. That's all I was attempting to do," he said.

Christie added that such out-of-context attacks "just shows how politically desperate the Democrats are."

A Jan. 19 Quinnipiac poll has claimed that the state is split almost equally on the topic, with 52 percent of New Jerseyans saying in the poll that they are in favor of same-sex marriage, though advocacy groups on both sides of the issue caution relying on such data.

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.

The bill passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be reviewed again before being sent to the Senate floor for a vote.

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