Congressman John Lewis of Georgia visited New Jersey Monday and blasted the suggestion from Gov. Chris Christie that state lawmakers put marriage equality to a public vote in a referendum.
Lewis led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped direct the bridge crossing of protesters in Selma, Ala., in 1965 that met with police brutality and became known as "Bloody Sunday." He joined Congressman Rush Holt, New Jersey Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, and others at a news conference in Trenton to denounce the remark from Christie last week that civil rights activists in the 1950s and '60s "would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets of the South."
Congressman Lewis, who worked with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., said the slain civil rights leader used to say about interracial marriage that, "Races don't fall in love and get married, individuals fall in love and get married."
"If two men want to fall in love and get married, or two women, it's their business," said Lewis. "It's not the role of the federal government or the state government to intervene. It's a question of human dignity, a question of human rights. I think the day will come in New Jersey and all across our country when we will look back on this period and say, 'We were just silly. We were just foolish.'"
Lewis, a cosponsor of the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, said he was invited to visit the state before the referendum controversy erupted by Congressman Holt, one of nine Democratic members of the New Jersey congressional delegation who signed a letter earlier this month urging state lawmakers to pass the marriage equality bill. The bill failed in the Senate in 2010, but lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature believe they can pass the bill this session, which ends in January 2014.
However, last Tuesday the Republican governor, one of Mitt Romney's most prominent national surrogates, reiterated his pledge to veto the bill, which called into question the prospects for achieving enough bipartisan support for an override. Christie made his suggestion for a referendum on the same day. A recent poll showed that 52% of New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage.
The governor tried to clarify his controversial remark, which met with outrage from African-American officials and Democratic legislative leaders, during a news conference Monday. He said of the referendum that civil rights activists "wished they would have had the option, but the political climate did not permit it, meaning they would not win."
Christie only seemed to fuel more controversy when he referred to Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, one of two openly gay lawmakers in the state, as "numbnuts" for comparing him to the segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox because of the referendum suggestion.
According to NBC News, Christie's opposition to marriage equality puts him at odds with a bipartisan group of five former New Jersey governors. The sixth former living elected governor, Christie Todd Whitman, also supports equal rights for same-sex couples, but a spokeswoman called her position more "nuanced" because she thinks government should just issue a legal document to all couples regardless of their sexual orientation.
Speaker Oliver made a reference to the unfolding battle Monday when she introduced Lewis and said the congressman was visiting New Jersey "at a time when civil rights and one of the great events in human history, the triumph of the American ideal of liberty and equality for all over deep-rooted and brutal segregation, has been flipped into an unfathomable sound bite in these past few days."
A state Senate panel advanced the marriage equality bill last Tuesday in an 8-4 party line vote, and the bill is expected to come to the floor next month. The Assembly judiciary committee will hold a hearing on the bill this Thursday morning.
Watch the speech from Congressman John Lewis starting at the 6:30 mark.