TRENTON, N.J. — Gay rights advocates in New Jersey have been pushing for a decade to get state courts or lawmakers to recognize same-sex marriage. But this week, they demurred when Gov. Chris Christie called for a public vote to settle the topic. The main reason they've given is based on principle: It's not fair, they say, to let voters decide a civil rights issue.
But there's more to their position. It would be a costly and divisive fight, and they know the odds are against them, even though several 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, the 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," he said. "Our job is to expose them."
So far, Brown's side has been winning.
Thirty-one times states have had votes on constitutional amendments to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. The referendums have been approved 30 times. And 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 Maine and California, where there are efforts to overturn constitutional bans.
In New Jersey, opponents of gay marriage have been calling for years for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But to get that or any question on the ballot, they would need the Legislature to approve it. In a state controlled by Democrats, that idea's never gotten much traction. But it got a boost this week from the governor.
Gay marriage advocates are already battling for recognition of same-sex marriages. But this month, state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said passing a law to allow it was a top priority. And on Tuesday, a measure was approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
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.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, would not say this week if the governor wants a referendum on whether to allow gay marriage or to ban it.
Democratic officials quickly spoke up against Christie's idea, making it clear that the referendum wouldn't be put on the ballot anytime soon.
Many of those speaking for the Democrats were African-American leaders who related the battle for gay marriage to the fight for civil rights for blacks. "No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and the sentiments of the majority," said Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
The reasoning for gay rights groups goes beyond theory — and straight to the 30 state constitutional amendments already adopted in the U.S.
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 put in place an amendment to bar same-sex matrimony months after a state court allowed it.
The two sides spent a combined $83 million in their campaigns — a large sum, but less than the state's two most recent gubernatorial elections.
Television commercials and online videos were ubiquitous.
Groups backing gay marriage, the side that narrowly won the spending battle, had an online fundraising video in which all sorts of gay marriage proponents, including children, used profanity and described opponents as hateful. Another ad, criticizing the role of Mormons in campaigning for the amendment, 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. A frequently cited one: Schools would teach about homosexuality even if parents objected. In one spot, a girl tells 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 is that religious groups would be punished for having anti-gay or anti-gay marriage beliefs.
Solomon called those ads "pure hate-mongering."
And he said that the campaign caused harm. 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 has since moved its headquarters to Washington, has emerged as one of the largest fundraising groups opposed to gay marriage.
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Brian Brown, the group's director, said it 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 prey on people's fears — but often sway voters. "If there were a law banning both sides from spending a penny, we'd win," he said.
Jim White, a former state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic-affiliated group that says it would campaign against gay marriage, doesn't have much patience for statements like those.
"They keep bragging about the polls," he said. "But they refuse to put it to a vote."