- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2013

In a decision with direct implications for the 2016 Republican presidential race, Gov. Chris Christie ordered his attorney general Monday not to fight a court decision legalizing gay marriage, making New Jersey the nation’s 14th state to recognize same-sex unions.

The capitulation on the hot-button social issue is an about-face for Mr. Christie and may cement his reputation as a pragmatist who fights to win — but shrewdly folds when he sees he has a losing hand, said some political observers. It also may boost the governor’s vote total in his re-election race next month, further burnishing his status as a rare Republican politician who can thrive in a blue state.

But that same pragmatism may hurt his standing with the GOP political base as Mr. Christie faces a field of more conservative rivals in the 2016 presidential primaries. Social conservatives Monday were condemning Mr. Christie’s decision to call off the fight, allowing the court to essentially overturn the state law against gay marriage.

“Ahead of us is a constitutional crisis,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.

The New Jersey Supreme Court “allowed a single judge to decide for the entire state what marriage is, treading on both the governor and the legislature in doing so,” said Mr. Deo. There are no provisions for religious exemptions, “meaning we will soon see people threatened with intolerable choices between their consciences and their authorization to minister to the needy or conduct business with the public,” he said.

The state allows same-sex civil unions, but Mr. Christie himself vetoed a gay-marriage bill in February 2012 while calling on the Legislature to let state voters weigh in on the issue through a referendum.

SEE ALSO: N.J.’s Cory Booker on gay weddings: ‘This is very beautiful’

Mr. Christie, heavily favored to win a second term Nov. 5 against his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, may have expanded his appeal to some blocs in New Jersey with the gay-marriage decision, political observers said. It follows a surprise move by the governor in a debate with Ms. Buono on Wednesday opening the door to offering immigrants living in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s colleges.

Seeking big win

“I think the governor wants to win with a very big margin,” said Ben Dworkin, political science professor at Rider University and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

He said the immigration comments marked a “180-degree turn” from the governor’s previous stance.

The tuition decision may play well in New Jersey, but may “not be the best thing for a Republican running for president,” Mr. Dworkin said.

However, the marriage decision “can still help him” in a presidential run: He can claim that he opposed it until blocked by the courts — and get credit from some gay-marriage supporters because he dropped the appeal, he added.

“It’s a very neat way of threading the needle” on the gay-marriage issue, he said, adding that “in a crowded Republican primary,” Mr. Christie is likely to offer himself as a winner at the polls and an alternative “to the ‘no-compromise’ element of the Republican Party.”

Mr. Christie’s decision is unlikely to win active support within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lobby.

“I don’t think we’re about to see the LGBT community organize to raise funds and advance his political ambitions because I think he’s going to continue to say that he doesn’t believe in gay marriage,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

“But I do think there are people — moderates, or people who have different positions than his — who will be aware that he is somebody who may oppose them on issues but is not going to engage in losing battles,” said Ms. Mandel. “He’s not going to stand as an ideological purist in the face of legal decisions that are going in the opposite direction.”

But Mr. Deo said the Republican base — in particular social conservatives and “values voters” — “is very upset.”

Mr. Christie “basically surrendered the moral authority of the executive authority” to an activist court, even though the U.S. Supreme Court said in its landmark gay-marriage ruling this summer that states have the right to determine their own marriage laws.

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council praised Mr. Christie for vetoing the gay-marriage bill last year and going to court to defend the state’s marriage law. But his decision to fold undercut those efforts, Mr. Sprigg said.

“Conservatives are looking for leaders who will sustain their commitment to unchanging principles,” said Mr. Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.

The gay-marriage decision, alongside Mr. Christie’s decision to sign a bill that forbids New Jersey minors from seeking “gay reparation” therapies, gives “conservatives serious pause about Gov. Christie’s reliability,” Mr. Sprigg said.

More battles ahead

As New Jersey became the 14th state to permit gay marriage, activists in Illinois and Hawaii were heading to their battle stations.

On Tuesday, gay-marriage supporters are expected to gather at the Illinois Statehouse to urge lawmakers to approve gay marriage during their special session. Traditional-values groups will hold rallies Wednesday.

In Hawaii, activists are planning events around a special legislative session Monday, during which lawmakers are scheduled to consider a gay-marriage bill proposed by Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat.

Like New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii have civil union laws for same-sex couples. These states were targeted quickly by gay-marriage advocates after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal government could not deny federal benefits to gay couples who are legally married under a state law.

That ruling has put pressure on states to enact gay marriage, and about two dozen states — including Tennessee as of Monday — now have lawsuits seeking the rights to gay marriage.

On Wednesday, the New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a gay-marriage case. New Mexico’s marriage law has been deemed ambiguous, and some judges have ordered county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

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