N.J. gay rights advocates fight a vote on same-sex marriage

Author: Geoff Mulvihill
Publication: Associated Press
Publication Date: January 30th, 2012

Click here to read the full article by the Associated Press at Philly.com. 

TRENTON - Gay rights advocates in New Jersey have been pushing for a decade to get state courts or lawmakers to recognize same-sex marriage. But last week, they demurred when Gov. Christie called for a public vote to settle the topic.

Their main reason is based on principle: It's not fair, they say, to let voters decide a civil rights issue.

But there's another consideration: It would be a costly and divisive fight, and the advocates know the odds are against them, even if recent polls have shown the majority of New Jersey voters support allowing gay marriage.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said a public vote on the issue would not really reflect the will of the people. 

"A referendum reflects which side can corrupt the political system with more money," he said.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said his organization and others would put millions of dollars into a campaign against allowing gay marriage.

"The other side has put forward a number of lies," Brown said. "Our job is to expose them."

So far, his side has been winning.

Thirty-one times states have had votes on constitutional amendments to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The referendums have been approved 30 times. In the one exception, in Arizona, voters two years later passed a similar amendment.

This year, marriage amendments could be on the ballots of about a half-dozen states. Only two are being pushed by groups that want gay couples to be allowed to marry. Those are in Maine and California, where there are efforts to overturn constitutional bans.

Gay-marriage advocates already were battling for recognition of same-sex marriage in New Jersey. But this month, State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D, Gloucester) said passing a law to allow it was a top priority. Last week, the state Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure.

The same day, Christie, a Republican, vowed to veto any such bill and instead called for a public vote, saying such an important societal change should be made by the people, not lawmakers.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for the New York pro-gay marriage group Freedom to Marry, said a referendum campaign in New Jersey might look a lot like the one in 2008 in California, where he worked as a volunteer during the last weeks of the campaign and after as director of Equality California. In California, voters adopted an amendment barring same-sex matrimony months after a state court allowed it.

The two sides spent a combined $83 million in their campaigns. Television commercials and online videos were ubiquitous.

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Groups backing gay marriage, the side that narrowly won the spending battle, had an ad that criticized the role of Mormons in campaigning for the amendment. It showed two Mormons knocking on the door of a lesbian couple's home. One of them said: "We're here to take away your rights."

Social conservatives asserted that allowing gay marriage would have widespread negative consequences, including allowing schools to teach about homosexuality even if parents objected. In one spot, a girl told her mother: "Mom, guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess."

Another thread of the ads was that religious groups would be punished for having antigay or antigay marriage beliefs.

Solomon called the spots "pure hate-mongering."

Young gays and children of gays were more likely to be bullied during the campaign, he said, and gay-led families suffered the psychological damage of having their very existence debated.

The National Organization for Marriage, which was founded in Princeton in 2007 but which has since moved its headquarters to Washington, has emerged as one of the largest fund-raising groups opposed to gay marriage.

Brown said the group would invest heavily in New Jersey if there were a vote here. "The content of our ads would be similar to what you've seen throughout the country, which is telling the truth about the consequences of same-sex marriage," he said.

Garden State Equality's Goldstein said opponents' ads preyed on people's fears - but often sway voters. "If there were a law banning both sides from spending a penny, we would win," he said.

Jim White, a former state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic-affiliated group that has said it would campaign against gay marriage, doesn't have much patience for such statements.

"They keep bragging about the polls," he said. "But they refuse to put it to a vote."