Two of New Jersey's most influential black leaders blasted Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday for proposing gay marriage be put to a popular vote in November, but the Republican governor insisted he's offering a reasonable compromise amid his personal opposition to same-sex nuptials.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Newark Mayor Cory Booker said in separate forums that civil rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and don't belong on the ballot.
Booker said baseball great Jackie Robinson would not have had the opportunity to break the sport's color barrier had the matter been put to a vote, and the mayor himself would not have had the opportunity, years later, to be elected to lead New Jersey's largest city. Oliver said in a statement she was offended by Christie's comment Tuesday that bloodshed may have been avoided in the South, and people would have been happier, if the civil rights issues of the 1960s were settled by public referendum.
"Governor, people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method," Oliver said. "It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans."
Booker said during a news conference in Newark: "Dear God, we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote, to be subject to the sentiments, the passions of the day. No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and the sentiments of the majority. This is the fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for."
Christie defended himself at a Statehouse news conference, saying he's offering a compromise on gay marriage.
"I'm in divided government and I'm trying to find a way for people ... to find another pathway where everybody can have a chance to get what they want," he said. "My view is a public referendum on a constitutional amendment regarding same-sex marriage is a way to get to that result."
Six states and Washington, D.C. permit gay marriages. Thirty-one states have adopted constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
The effort to legalize same-sex marriage gained new momentum this month when the Democratic-controlled Senate declared the issue a priority for the new legislative session. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure in an 8-4 party-line vote following a three-hour hearing on Tuesday, but Christie upended their efforts by announcing that he would veto any gay marriage bill that made it to his desk. He previously said he would consider the bill but was unlikely to change his mind.
A gay marriage bill failed in the Senate two years ago.
Christie said during the 2009 campaign that the issue should be put to a public vote because of its significance, and he reiterated that call on Tuesday, likely derailing any Republican legislators from supporting gay marriage legislation.
A day earlier, the governor, who is Catholic, surprised almost everyone by nominating an openly gay black Republican and a Korean-born immigrant to the state Supreme Court.
With Christie seeking a referendum on gay marriage and Democratic leaders issuing a resounding "no way'" a protracted political standoff seemed inevitable.
Christie acknowledged that eventuality Wednesday, saying: "We all know how this movie is going to end. If they pass the bill, it's going to be vetoed. If they attempt to override the veto, it will be sustained. So, I'm trying to give them an alternative movie."
Other black Democrats weighed in later in the day.
"If the governor was hoping to defend his reprehensible stance on marriage equality by suggesting that those who fought and died for civil rights in this county would have preferred a referendum, that by all historical accounts would have been most likely defeated, he failed miserably," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, former Assembly majority leader.
Associated Press Writer Samantha Henry in Newark contributed to this report.