A state judge ruled last month that gay marriage should be legal, clearing the way for same-sex nuptials to begin this week. The Christie administration appealed. State supreme court oral arguments had been planned for January, but the justices ruled last week that weddings should be allowed to proceed immediately. On Monday morning, with weddings already taking place, Christie announced that his administration was dropping its appeal – in effect making same-sex marriage the law of the land in New Jersey.
Gay rights activists, meanwhile, are rallying votes in the legislature on a second track, to override the governor’s veto of the marriage bill.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, said his group has a closer relationship with Christie than it had with his Democratic predecessors. Like other activists, he sees the governor’s stance on marriage as an anomaly most likely attributable to calculations around his presidential ambitions.
“I honestly don’t see what is holding him back” from supporting same-sex marriage, Stevenson said, “except for potentially politics.”
Organizers of the pro-gay Republican effort say they remain committed to pressing for marriage rights, with Singer and Mehlman both backing a number of state-level campaigns — including the push to override Christie’s veto.
“But we’re telling Republicans, ‘If you think you can’t get there on marriage, here is a safe list of things you can support,’ ” said Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to Singer’s advocacy group.
Organizers say they are confident that the Senate will pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The Republican-led House, they say, is a taller order, though they note that Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, has voiced support for workplace protections in the past.
Social-conservative leaders say the effort by gay rights backers won’t work.
“Regardless of how much money [Singer and his allies] bring to the table, it is not to the advantage of Republican officeholders politically to support his agenda,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, one of the major evangelical groups opposing the ENDA. “Particularly in Republican primaries, the Republican Party is still strongly socially conservative. These are core convictions that people have.”
Sprigg described the ENDA as a “legislative way to declare that it’s morally wrong to disapprove of homosexual conduct.” The bill, he said, is a “direct attack against the moral convictions of social conservatives.”
In their lobbying appointments and meetings with candidates and strategists, advocates argue that politicians need not fear a backlash should they decide to change course on gay rights issues.
“Because it’s so personal, we are helping them through the process and helping guide them, and showing them that Republican support is there in the electorate, that they’re not going to be punished,” said Dan Meyers, a former RNC staffer who is president of Project Right Side, an advocacy group rolled out by Mehlman after the 2012 elections.
Increasing pressure is also coming from Republican donors who see gay rights as a determining factor in who gets their checks. The issue routinely comes up at New York GOP fundraisers, Cook-McCormac said, “always in the context of, ‘The party’s got to get over this.’ ”
New data being circulated by the campaign show that a clear majority of Republicans back the workplace anti-discrimination law. In contrast, though support for same-sex marriage has been rising among GOP voters, it remains a minority view in the party’s electorate.
Reynolds voted against the employment-protections bill in 2007. At the time, he said, he saw it as a “trial lawyer bonanza.” But similar state laws have not sparked frivolous lawsuits, he said.
“There just doesn’t seem to be evidence of some of the concerns that were presented at the time,” he said.
The outreach to GOP lawmakers is closely aligned with a $2 million pro-ENDA lobbying campaign being run by a new bipartisan coalition called Americans for Workplace Opportunity. Singer has forged an unusual partnership with a liberal Democratic donor, Jonathan Lewis, with each pledging $250,000 for the effort.
Singer said the ENDA is “an opportunity for Republicans to do what is right and reinforce the American principle that people should be judged on their merits.”