Gov. Christie followed through on his promise to veto a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, but did it with a twist Friday: He offered to appoint an ombudsman who would ensure that civil-union licenses are recognized and respected as equal to marriage licenses, as required by state law.
"Same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples - as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits," Christie, a Republican, said in a statement. "Discrimination should not be tolerated and any complaint alleging a violation of a citizen's right should be investigated and, if appropriate, remedied."
But for gay advocates and Democratic leaders in Trenton, that's not good enough, because it would still limit gay couples to civil unions.
"It's not equal, it's not the same," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who led the effort for the bill in his chamber. "He knows he's wrong, he had to walk a tightrope. Why would you need an ombudsman when you had a bill that respected everyone's rights?"
Steven Goldstein, the head of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, called the proposal ridiculous.
"A number of civil union couples work in New York, which doesn't recognize civil unions, they recognize marriage," he said in an interview. "Are they going to ask a New Jersey ombudsman to enforce the law in New York? That's the biggest joke I ever heard."
An ombudsman could not stop the bullying of children who are "stigmatized by the inferior label of civil unions," he said.
"The governor's trying to have his cake and eat it too," Goldstein said. "He wants to appeal to the Republican base, so he vetoes same-sex marriage. But then he feels a little guilty, so he says, 'Sure, I'm against discrimination.' "
Democrats, who rule both chambers, will ignore Christie's proposal, which would force them to gut their bill, and try to override his veto, Sweeney said.
They'll need GOP help.
The Senate, which passed the bill by 24-16 on Monday, needs three additional votes to overturn the veto. The Assembly, which passed the bill Thursday, 42-33, with no GOP support, must find a dozen additional votes.
Civil unions have been legal in New Jersey since 2007, but same-sex marriage advocates say the licenses are not always recognized.
A recent poll shows that 54 percent of state residents support gay marriage. But nearly the same proportion backs the governor's idea of putting the issue to a referendum, a notion he repeated Friday.
"An issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide," Christie said.
Democrats have rejected putting the question to voters. "People will always vote to deny the minority: they always have and they always will," Sweeney said.
Six states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage. Washington state's new gay-marriage law was signed by its governor this week and takes effect in June. Maryland's House of Delegates on Friday approved a same-sex marriage bill, which is expected to pass the Senate and be signed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Thirty states have adopted constitutional amendments to thwart gay marriage.
Pennsylvania offers no spousal benefits to gay couples.
New Jersey's first attempt to approve gay marriage failed in the final days of Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration in January 2010. The bill was defeated, 14-20, in the Senate with five abstentions, including Sweeney's. It never reached a vote in the Assembly.
Sweeney has said he regrets he didn't decide sooner to back same-sex marriage and is hopeful more legislators will change their minds in the next two years. Lawmakers have until the end of the legislative session on Jan. 14, 2014, to try to overturn the Christie veto.
"They're OK with same-sex couples living together, loving each other, adopting children, going to church, the whole bit," Sweeney said. "These people are being denied benefits that I get because of a word."
The fight for same-sex marriage will also continue in New Jersey courts. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples deserve access to the same marriage benefits as heterosexual couples. The Legislature, complying with the court's order, passed the civil-union law in December of the same year.
Lambda Legal, a civil rights advocacy group, filed a lawsuit last year that says civil unions have not met the court's requirements, so the Legislature should approve same-sex marriage.