New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie kept his vow to veto a bill allowing same-sex marriage Friday as he sent it back to the legislature, reiterating that the voters should decide if they want a societal change as significant as allowing gay marriage.
The Republican governor vetoed the bill, titled Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, which the N.J. Assembly passed Thursday, three days after its passage in the state Senate.
"I am adhering to what I've said since this bill was first introduced – an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide," Christie said in a statement Friday. He said the legislature should trust the people of the state and seek their input by "allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change." That, he stressed, is "the best way to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage in our state."
Christie also said that he had been "just as adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples – as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits."
He also called for an ombudsman for civil unions, saying that discrimination should not be tolerated and complaints of violations must be investigated, and when appropriate remedied. "To that end, I include in my conditional veto the creation of a strong Ombudsman for Civil Unions to carry on New Jersey's strong tradition of tolerance and fairness."
The bill pushed by Democrats 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.
N.J. Democrats called Christie's move ideologically motivated. "It's unfortunate that the governor would let his own personal ideology infringe on the rights of thousands of New Jerseyans," The Associated Press quoted an openly gay legislator, Reed Gusciora, as saying. "For all those who oppose marriage equality, their lives would have been completely unchanged by this bill, but for same-sex couples, their lives would have been radically transformed. Unfortunately, the governor couldn't see past his own personal ambitions to honor this truth."
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg charged that the governor's call for a public referendum and his idea of an ombudsman for civil unions "is nothing more than a political smoke screen designed to cover the tracks of those retreating from their leadership and lawmaking responsibilities."
Christie has said the institution of marriage is "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."
Same-sex marriage is also being considered in Maryland, where the House of Delegates passed a bill on Friday to legalize it. Gov. Martin O'Malley says he will sign it when it comes to his desk.