Civil rights on marriage equality can’t be decided by referendum

By Steven Goldstein

In a new Quinnipiac Poll out today (March 1), support for marriage equality in New Jersey has risen to an all-time high 57 to 37 percent. We lead in virtually every category, including 52 to 43 percent among Catholics – often wrongly perceived to be on the other side of the issue.

Yet still we oppose changing New Jersey’s entire system of governance – which rightfully makes public referenda almost impossible – and oppose any constitutional amendment that would allow a public referendum on marriage equality. Thankfully, the leaders of our Legislature, through which a referendum must first pass in New Jersey, won’t even post a referendum bill to committee.

First, you don’t put the civil rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority. The last time New Jersey did that was in 1915, when a statewide referendum was held to determine whether women should have the right to vote. 58 percent voted no, and 42 percent voted yes.

Today a leading champion of equality, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, says of women’s suffrage in New Jersey: “It took the Legislature to pass it.” She’s right. In 1920, three years after the state’s unconscionable denial of equal rights for women through a public referendum, the New Jersey Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote everywhere in America.

Secondly, a public referendum is by no means an expression of popular opinion. Those who peddle that spin are feeding you a heap of misleading pablum. Rather, public referenda are instruments for corrupting the political system with tens of millions of dollars.

If our opponents’ fantasy of a public referendum on marriage equality actually came to fruition in New Jersey, you can count on the wealthiest opponents of equality – almost entirely from outside New Jersey – to invest tens of millions of dollars to deny same-sex couples in New Jersey the freedom to marry. Our side couldn’t come close to raising what they could.

Did I dare just admit that we would likely lose a public referendum on marriage equality in New Jersey? I did. The Governor, who last month vetoed the marriage equality bill, says he is being generous to our cause in his support of putting marriage equality on the ballot, because in his view, we’d have a good chance of winning.

To evoke the Governor’s direct-speaking language: Come on. Be real. Do the Governor and the other opponents of equality really expect us to believe they support a referendum because they’re confident our side would win? Stop it. They know they could buy the election, no matter where the poll numbers stand now.

Case in point: Proposition 8 in California, the November 2008 referendum where California voters defeated marriage equality 52 to 48 percent. In fact, several pre-election polls showed our side leading. Pay heed to these numbers: A Field Poll in California in September 2008 showed Proposition 8 losing – that is, our side winning – by 55 to 38 percent. Those are almost the same pro-marriage equality numbers we see in today’s Quinnipiac Poll of New Jersey. So what happened in California? An infestation of political money, including much out-of-state money.

By the way, given the recent decision of a panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution, the entire question of a public referendum in New Jersey ardently advanced by our opponents may be nothing more than a cynical political game.

Responding to our arguments against a public referendum, opponents of equality say our counterparts leading the fight for marriage equality for Maine were quite happy when marriage equality recently qualified for the November ballot in Maine.

That’s a tiny piece of the story. In Maine, which has process for putting an issue on the ballot that New Jersey does not have – by collecting voters’ signatures – the only way for our counterparts to win equality is by a referendum.

That’s because Maine voters passed a referendum in 2009 nullifying the law passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor that instituted marriage equality.

Moreover, there’s another piece of history our opponents won’t tell you about Maine: In referenda in 1998 and 2000, Maine voters twice nullified the law passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor to provide LGBT people the most basic anti-discrimination protection, including in employment, housing and public accommodation.

In other words, voters in Maine pro-actively made it legal for a company, landlord, hotel owner or shop owner to refuse to hire, rent to, or sell to a person because he or she is LGBT.

And therein lay the danger of a public referendum.

Steven Goldstein is chair of Garden State Equality.

 

 

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