Governor Christie conditionally vetoed the gay marriage bill Friday afternoon, delivering on his promise of "swift action" against the measure, which passed in both houses of the Legislature this week.
Christie's veto came a day after the state Assembly passed the bill legalizing same-sex marriages by a 42-33 vote.
The governor, an opponent of gay marriage, had promised "very swift action" if the bill passed in both houses. The Senate approved the bill Monday in a 24-16 vote.
In a prepared statement Friday, the governor said the best approach would be to strengthen the state's current civil union law and suggested appointing an ombudsman to handle discrimination complaints from gay couples.
"I have been just as adamant that 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 said in the statement.
He also reiterated his stance on the issue, saying he thought gay marriage should be put to a popular vote on the November ballot.
"Today, I am adhering to what I’ve said since this bill was first introduced – an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide," he said.
While most Republicans have taken the same stance, the Senate passed the bill on Monday with help from Republicans Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Diane Allen (R-Burlington), who crossed the aisle, securing a wider margin.
Most Democrats say gay marriage should not be subject to a referendum because it is a civil right protected by the Constitution.
But Christie has repeatedly dismissed that notion.
"I continue to encourage the Legislature to trust the people of New Jersey and seek their input by allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change," he said.
"This is the only path to amend our State Constitution and the best way to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage in our state."
Gay rights activists said Thursday that an override campaign had already begun. Legislators have until Jan. 14, 2014 to override the veto, which would need several Republican votes in each house.
Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, the state's largest gay rights group, issued an impassioned statement Friday, saying that while the governor's veto was not surprising, it was personally hurtful.
"Frankly, I don’t think Chris Christie has an anti-gay bone in his body, however much I cannot say the same about his impending veto. His veto will be a brutally anti-gay act, pure and simple," Goldstein said.
He continued: "For us, this is not about politics. This is about our fundamental American right to conduct our lives with a full life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equality."
The bill, titled the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, would effectively eliminate the civil unions that have been in place since 2007, and define marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting people in a committed relationship.
The legislation was sponsored by Assembly Democratic lawmakers Reed Gusciora, Speaker Sheila Oliver, Connie Wagner, Mila Jasey, John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Jason O’Donnell, Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski and Timothy Eustace.
Currently, gay marriage is recognized in six states and Washington, D.C. Washington State's new gay marriage law is scheduled to take effect in June.
Gay rights advocates argue that the state's civil union law has not adequately protected same-sex couples from discrimination. The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission found that numerous hospitals around the state denied visitation and medical decision rights to civil union partners and several gay couples have filed lawsuits.
Included in the governor's conditional veto is a call for an Ombudsman for Civil Unions, who would be charged with raising awareness of the law regarding civil unions and providing "a clear point of contact for those who have questions or concerns and will be required to report any evidence of the law being violated."