On Monday, New Jersey will officially become the 14th state to recognize gay marriage. The state Supreme Court, thanks in large part to the federal Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, is allowing a lower court ruling that gay marriages must commence to stand, saying "we can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection."
"The state has advanced a number of arguments, but none of them overcome this reality: Same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today," said the court's opinion, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. "The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative."
"The state," in this instance, is the administration of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has attempted to prevent the Garden State – which has recognized civil unions since 2007 – from recognizing gay marriages. Christie not only vetoed an attempt by the state legislature to approve gay marriages, but he wanted the state Supreme Court to stay the lower court's ruling until the entire appeals process is exhausted. (The state Supreme Court is taking up an appeal of the lower court's decision early next year.)
But Christie finally relented last week, saying that he will direct his government to start facilitating marriages on Monday. "While the governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the state of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order of the Superior Court under the applicable law," his press secretary, Michael Drewniak, said in a statement.
This though, is the best outcome that Christie could have hoped for, particularly if he has an eye on the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He can tell conservatives that he fought the good fight, while not going to the sorts of extremes that may turn off the voters he would need to actually win a general election. He can also say he was simply adhering to the will of his constituents, who favor gay marriage by a two to one margin, while maintaining that he believes gay marriage is so problematic that he would even oppose it in the case of his own children.
Remember, President Obama endorsed gay marriage before the 2012 election, and it hardly played a role in his campaign against Republican nominee Mitt Romney. It's going to be even less of an issue in 2016, if current trends hold. In fact, being opposed to same-sex marriage may be more of a liability in the general election than being in favor of it was just a few election cycles ago. For Christie, it's probably best that he can put the whole thing behind him and focus on the issues that have made him hugely popular in what is a very blue state in federal elections.
This isn't to say that Christie won't have problems with the more conservative members of his party, who play an outsized role in the nomination process, on a range of issues, including his having worked with Obama post-Hurricane Sandy and his staunch defense of a Muslim judicial nominee. (It's a sad state of affairs that working with the president and nominating a Muslim judge are potential landmines for him with the right-wing fringe, but that's the way things are at the moment.)
But the way in which the gay marriage debate played out in New Jersey allows him to extricate himself without having either sullied his chance at the nomination or having turned his constituents or more moderate voters against him. He'll live to holler and bellow another day.