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N.J. fight on gay conversion therapy has Gov. Christie in a tight spot

Chris Christie, governor of a liberal state and a potential national GOP contender, has walked a fine line on gay marriage. But a proposed N.J. ban on gay conversion therapy threatens that balancing act.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a large gathering in Manasquan, N.J., Thursday, during a town hall meeting.

Mel Evans/AP

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A proposal to ban gay conversion therapy in New Jersey has put Gov. Chris Christie, a possible 2016 GOP contender, in the spotlight at a time when many in the US, and in the Republican Party, appear to be reevaluating their stance on gays and gay marriage.

Governor Christie “does not believe in conversion therapy” for homosexuals, a spokeswoman said Thursday, but has not yet decided whether he will support a bill outlawing the practice that is currently under consideration by state lawmakers.

On Wednesday Christie sparked headlines for declining to take a stand on the controversial practice, which attempts to reduce homosexual tendencies in people and put them on a path to heterosexuality.

The debate may erode support for the perennially popular governor as he gears up for a gubernatorial race later this year – and considers running on the GOP ticket in 2016. It also presses Christie, who opposes gay marriage but believes voters should ultimately decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to wed, to take a more decisive stand on that issue.

As a Republican leader of a liberal state, the governor has long walked a tightrope on gay marriage, says Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.

“This is in my view a really complex issue for the governor,” says Professor Harrison. “On the one hand you have his need to placate socially conservative Republicans nationally for whom this is a litmus test issue,” while at the same time, “not cause a rise in the state.”

As a result, she says, “He really has kind of played both sides, not advocating an anti-gay position but not being the champion on gay rights that many people in New Jersey think their leader should be.”

“In response to that, Democrats, including Senate president and likely [gubernatorial] opponent [State Senator Barbara] Buono, have tried to capitalize on this issue … by painting him into a corner and making him clarify his position to voters,” she adds. 

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The hullabaloo began earlier this week when the New Jersey State Senate, led by Buono, a Democrat, passed a bill banning gay conversion therapy.

When asked whether he supports such a ban, the typically straight-talking governor waffled.

“I’m of two minds just on this stuff in general. No. 1, I think there should be lots of deference given to parents on raising their children,” Christie said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t – this is a general philosophy, not to his bill – generally, philosophically, on bills that restrict parents’ ability to make decisions on how to care for their children, I’m generally a skeptic of those bills. Now there can always be exceptions to those rules, and this bill may be one of them."

From there, the issue ballooned. Media reports on the governor’s comments mushroomed, the Democratic Governors Association began a fundraising campaign to stop the “right-wing reactionary,” and sensing an opportunity, Buono called Christie’s unwillingness to reject the practice “disgusting.”

“The governor said he doesn’t know much about gay conversion therapy. I don’t know how much more you need to know,” she said on a conference call, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I couldn’t believe the stunning level of ignorance that that statement showed,” she said, adding, “It’s an outrageous practice that has no place in New Jersey.”

The governor’s office issued a statement Thursday clarifying that Christie does not believe in gay conversion therapy. “There is no mistaking his point of view on this when you look at his own prior statements where he makes clear that people’s sexual orientation is determined at birth.”

By then, says Harrison, the damage was already done.

“All of the kind of things that accentuate Governor Christie’s position as socially conservative hurt him with that segment of voters … voters for whom this is a salient issue,” she says.

The gay conversion controversy comes as the national climate on gay rights is undergoing a leftward shift. Earlier this week former Secretary of State and possible 2016 Democratic contender Hillary Clinton publicly voiced her support of same-sex marriage in a YouTube video. Last week Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio also embraced gay marriage after revealing his son’s homosexuality.

The Supreme Court is preparing to take up the issue next week when it hears arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, as public support for gay marriage appears to rise. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds 58 percent of Americans support gay marriage, up from 32 percent a decade ago.

As such, it was only a matter of time before the issue landed on the doorstep of the outspoken New Jersey governor.

To date, says Harrison, “he has waffled on his position so that he can simultaneously placate his national and his New Jersey constituency.”

Though he opposes gay marriage, Christie favors civil unions and has said he would like to see a gay marriage referendum on the ballot in November to allow New Jersey voters to decide “what’s right for the state.”

In an appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan in 2011, he said he did not think homosexuality was a sin and believed some people are born gay.

New Jersey Democrats including Buono have used the gay conversion controversy to pressure Christie to clarify his position on gay marriage. It’s one of a number of issues on which the governor has had to make a tough choice, says Harrison.

“This year has put enormous pressure on the governor,” she says, citing difficult decisions he’s confronted on Medicare, funding for Planned Parenthood, accepting federal funding for state infrastructure projects, and now the gay rights controversy. “He recognizes, and the party elite recognize, that he has to make his deal with the devil.”

Nonetheless, challenging as this situation may be, the governor has mastered the delicate dance of mollifying allies and constituents on both sides of the aisle.

“He’s not one that often succumbs to external pressure for him to define himself politically,” says Harrison. “He’s very good at changing the story, criticizing others to deflect criticism from himself. I anticipate that’s what we’ll see.”

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