With the passage of a Gay Marriage bill in the New Jersey Senate and passage in the state Assembly seeming likely, Governor Chris Christie finds himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between satisfying the voters of his state and satisfying vocal constituencies within his party who may be able to block his future political ambitions.
Gay marriage has a strong base of support among voters in the state, who favor it 54% to 35% in the latest poll and the bill passed the Senate with a strong majority vote of 24-16 with two Republicans voting in favor. Socially conservative groups with influence in the Republican party are ready to condemn Governor Christie if he supports the bill. Everyone wants to chime in with their advice, including Washington Governor and fellow Catholic Christine Gregoire who just signed her own state’s gay marriage law on Monday.
Christie has expressed a clear support for civil unions, so he acknowledges the need for same-sex couples to have equality under the law. He just draws the line at allowing churches and individuals the right to use the word marriage to describe those relationships, a semantic distinction which is important for reasons which are all politics and have little practical weight. Governor Christie would like the issue to be submitted to the voters for a referendum, an option which might have taken the heat off of him, but which has led to massive campaigns from special interests in other states, usually leading to the defeat of same-sex marriage.
Governor Christie has expressed an intent to veto the bill, but before he makes that decision he might want to consider listening to voices within the Republican party that argue vehemently on the opposite side of the issue, including gay Republicans and civil libertarians. He may believe that he is in a struggle between his people and his party, but the GOP is not nearly as united on this issue as the religious right and the media which loves to play up their prejudices, would like people to believe.
Groups like the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud represent significant – if sometimes underground – numbers of gay Republicans and Liberty Republicans like the members of the Republican Liberty Caucus represent a broader spectrum of Republicans who believe that protecting the equality of the rights of individuals takes precedence over pandering to special interest groups on this issue, or at the very least that taking a negative position on this issue ought to be a low priority for a party with an opportunity to keep the debate focused on fiscal problems which pose a real threat to the welfare of the nation.
Christopher Barron, co-founder of GOProud, outlines the dilemma this situation creates for Christie:
“Governor Christie has been put in a difficult position, and it’s a difficult position by design. The left is more interested in damaging Gov. Christie’s political future then they are in passing marriage equality in New Jersey. The left knew that there was no chance that Gov. Christie would sign a marriage equality bill at this point and they have flatly rejected his compromise to have the voters of New Jersey decide the issue. While the timing is clearly motivated by politics, the issue is still an important one.”
With his star rising nationally, forcing a controversial decision on this issue helps weaken Christie as a potential player in the presidential race. Democrats are more interested in neutralizing a threat to President Obama than they are in standing up for advancing gay rights with a realistic compromise. As Barron points out, Christie ought to be able to counter the pressure from the left with support within his own party, though that day may not have come yet:
“I hope Governor Christie knows that there are significant, and growing, numbers of Republicans who believe in marriage equality and I am confident that one day – sooner rather than later – my party will be on the right side of this issue.”
As a group, Liberty Republicans stand up for individual rights in any context, but as a matter of policy they would prefer that the government play no role in defining marriage at all, especially not at the federal level, and that it be left to churches and individuals to define and name their relationships.
State legislators associated with the Republican Liberty Caucus are playing a big role in the debate over this issue in New Hampshire where there is an effort to repeal the bill legalizing same-sex marriage. New Hampshire State Representative Jennifer Coffey expressed their position well when she commented that government “doesn’t have the right to define marriage in any sense. It is a religious ceremony.”
However, it’s hard for Liberty Republicans to deny that there is problem with pursuing the ideal of getting government completely out of marriage if the result is that no action is taken to protect the rights of citizens to associate freely and form relationships without government interference. If they are faced with a situation where the government is going to demand a role in defining marriage one way or another, they would rather it come down on the side of more freedom and protecting individual rights, rather than denying equal rights to any segment of the population.
It is this argument which Governor Christie might want to listen to. Because of the weakness of New Jersey’s current civil union law and widespread failure by businesses to recognize domestic partnership rights, the equality of same-sex couples is currently not adequately protected in his state. That being the case, if you support the most basic principle on which the Republican Party was founded, that government should be a guardian of liberty and not an agent of preserving inequality, then it is hard not to support gay marriage if it is the only politically viable route to equal protection under the law.
Chris Christie knows where his enemies are within his own party, but maybe he is forgetting that he is not alone with the wolves and that there are Republicans of strong principles and good sense who he can reach out to for support. He may not be ready to take a chance on new allies yet, but the Republican Party is changing and he’s someone who could be at the forefront of a renaissance for a party which still believes that the hand of government should be light and liberty and equality are our birthright.