TRENTON, N.J. — Republican Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday he'd veto a gay marriage bill advancing in the Legislature and instead wants same-sex unions put to a referendum. Angry Democrats said lawmakers have an obligation to protect civil rights and the issue should not be put off for a public vote.
Christie made his first explicit promise to veto a gay marriage bill during a visit to Bridgewater, just hours before the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee forwarded the measure to the full Senate on an 8-4 party-line vote.
"Let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state," Christie said.
Christie told a town hall audience that an issue of such magnitude should be decided by residents and shouldn't be treated as "a political football." He said a proposed constitutional amendment should be drafted and put to a referendum, a position he also held when he campaigned for office in 2009.
"Whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions should not be decided by 121 people in the Statehouse," he said.
Gay marriage legislation failed in the Senate two years ago and Christie's opposition was known when it was again introduced this month.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat sponsoring the bill, said civil rights issues like the right to marry are guaranteed under the state constitution and do not require a public vote.
"Civil rights is not to be placed on the ballot," Sweeney said during a hearing on his legislation after being informed of Christie's comments.
Sweeney, who didn't vote on the measure the last time around, has said he has since had a change of heart. He said it's time for New Jersey to join six other states and 10 countries that sanction gay marriage.
The first to testify at the hearing ahead of Tuesday's vote, Sweeney said gay couples are being denied basic civil rights under the state's civil union law.
In response to Christie's announcement, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, another chief sponsor of the proposed new law, said "marriage equality isn't like sports betting."
"It's a civil right which is already guaranteed in our constitution. It's up to the Legislature to guarantee these rights and support marriage equality for same sex couples," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, 127 professors from 48 law schools around the country signed a letter saying New Jersey's civil union law cannot be fixed.
The professors, including former New Jersey Public Advocate Ron Chen, said the law granting gay couples the benefits of marriage without the title will never be equal to the right to marry.
The letter was sent to Christie, a Catholic, and the Legislature.
Christie on Monday nominated an openly gay black man to the state Supreme Court. During a news conference that followed, he said he would look at the gay marriage bill if it gained momentum, though he was unlikely to alter his opposition.
Henry reported from Bridgewater.