Should Governor Christie Compromise on Civil Rights?
Weeks before the New Jersey legislature put the question of same-sex marriage to a vote, Governor Chris Christie proposed an ostensibly fair and politically savvy compromise: take the issue to the people in the form of a state-wide referendum. For Christie, who is a rising star among the conservative mainstream, with possible national aspirations, it was a shrewd proposal; he would effectively take the polarizing issue off his desk while maintaining his socially conservative image. However, Christie’s proposed referendum is also a blatant denial of the tenets of civil rights, in the guise of egalitarian decision-making.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 referendum that made same-sex marriage illegal in the state through a constitutional amendment. In the decision, Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt wrote that, although communities have a right to vote and decide on most issues concerning them, there must “…be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently.” The court was quick to clarify that it was not making a broad ruling on same-sex marriage, but only on the unconstitutional differences in treatment between married couples and domestic partners.
However, the decision still has two very profound messages. First, even if the court is unwilling to say it, same-sex marriage should be made legal if it is ruled that Prop. 8 and other anti-same-sex marriage laws have no legitimate legal reason to discriminate (The only function of Prop 8, as Judge Reinhardt explained, was to lessen the human dignity of gay and lesbian citizens). Second, the question of same-sex marriage, which is a civil rights issue, should not be decided by a direct popular vote.
To many in New Jersey, and across the country, a referendum seems to make sense. The state legislatures are slow-moving and bureaucratic, while a popular vote is decisive. And anyways, doesn’t a popular vote more accurately reflect the opinions of the majority? It is true that a popular vote is more, though not fully, representative of the opinions of the people. But, when it comes to the personal and basic liberties of Americans, are the sentiments of the majority enough?
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark put it best when, in response to Christie’s proposed referendum, he said, “No minority should have their civil rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority.” Imbedded within his statement is an evocation of past civil rights fights: the suffrage movement, interracial marriage, and the 1960s civil rights movement itself, all of which suffered setbacks due to prejudiced majority opinion. It is the job of elected state leaders, both governors and representatives, to protect the rights of all of their citizens, not just the ones who are personally or politically convenient, and it is wrong on principle to ignore that responsibility by passing it onto voters, whose majority opinion will not always coincide with the right of minorities.
In New Jersey, 54 percent of polled citizens said they support same-sex marriage, and over 50 percent said they also support Christie’s referendum. Were there to be a referendum in New Jersey, it is plausible that a proposition legalizing same-sex marriage would be passed. However, it is just as possible that conservative, anti-same-sex marriage organizations would flood into New Jersey, spend millions on publicity, and draw out voters who wouldn’t vote otherwise. The potential for positive change is there, but “potential” is not enough. In New Jersey the numbers may be favorable, but what about in Texas, or Kentucky, or even Connecticut? A referendum in New Jersey sends the wrong message to the rest of the country.
In vetoing a pro-same-sex bill last week, Christie missed an opportunity to be part of a historic victory for same-sex rights and civil rights more generally. We must pressure our elected representatives and hold them accountable to pass and sign legislative initiatives for equality, and not pass the decision onto the public.