Last Tuesday, January 24, Governor Chris Christie stated that he would veto any bill from the legislature that would legalize same-sex marriage. Instead of allowing the New Jersey state legislature to address the issue, he stated that the controversial measure be decided by referendum. This naturally drew controversy from New Jersey democrats, as well as gay rights proponents throughout the state, who claimed Governor Christie was trying to avoid taking a concrete position on a crucial civil rights matter. The governor, along with Republican advocates, claim that a direct vote from citizens is the best way to handle the question of marriage equality democratically.
The response from Christie and his fellow Republicans seems like an honest and fair appeal to the voters, but the question remains: Is a direct referendum really the best way to handle a civil rights issue as monumental as marriage equality? The last referendum held in New Jersey was in 1915, to decide on women’s suffrage. The majority rejected the measure by a significant 51,108 votes according to NJ WomenHistory.org.
Also, gay rights proponents emphasized that of about 30 initiatives to strengthen homosexual civil rights, nearly all of them have failed to do so (one example being Proposition 8 in California).
With those facts being considered, it is historically not the best idea to let the general public decide on the civil rights of other citizens. Imagine if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was decided by the general public by a national direct election, and not passed as a bill through the congressional process. The results could be harmful to society at large.
A recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University states that 52 percent of NJ voters had the opinion that homosexual couples should be granted the right to marry. While 53 percent of those polled stated that it is discriminatory to deny gay Americans that right. At first glance, this data looks promising. However, traditionally these rights have been granted through court decision or a legislative measure. As mayor Cory Booker of Newark addressed Christie’s response he stated, “No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority.” These governmental institutions have been put in place to guarantee just that. A citizen’s basic rights should not be left in the hands of those ill equipped to make proper, impartial judgments upon their fellow citizens. This goes against the very nature of our democratic freedoms. James Madison warned of the tyranny of the majority in Federalist 10. If New Jersey disregards the idea that the simple idea that the majority simply cannot impose their desires on another group, then the intentions of our founding fathers will be rendered insignificant.
According to the logic of Christie and NJ Republicans, it is okay to leave the fate and livelihood of a population up to the general if one study suggests the initiative may pass by a slight margin. This referendum business is simply a barrier to distance the governor from the traditionally “non-conservative” idea of gay marriage, and create the mirage of the public’s will being imposed.
It is a truly comfortable position for Chris Christie, given the fact that gay rights measures have been overall unsuccessful and draw more conservative voters to the polls. If this issue is not left up to our elected and appointed officials, it creates the risk of having more important New Jersey decisions being left up to a referendum.
Essentially, New Jersey and the governor must avoid tyranny of the majority and leave civil rights issues not in the arena of public passions, but in the appropriate hands of law makers and justices.