A New Jersey Senate panel has approved a same-sex marriage bill the same day Gov. Chris Christie vowed to veto it, saying he supports putting the issue on the ballot.
Christie told a town hall audience in Bridgewater that an issue of such magnitude deserves to be voted on by residents, and he urged Republican lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment that would appear on a statewide ballot.
"This is a huge societal change ... it needs a lot of consideration," the first-term Republican governor said during the event at a Jewish community center. "There are very passionate people on both sides, so let's have at it. Let them make their opinions known and I'll make mine known."
The Democratic Senate president swiftly condemned that idea, saying civil rights issues should not be subject to a vote. Democrats hold a majority in the Legislature.
Christie's statement, his most explicit on the issue, came as a Senate committee considers a bill to legalize gay marriage and one day after Christie nominated an openly gay black man to the state Supreme Court. State Senator Kip Bateman, a Republican on the Judiciary Committee, proposed the ballot measure in Tuesday's hearing on the gay marriage bill.
During the Senate hearing, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said gay couples are being denied basic civil rights under the state's civil union law. Sweeney was the first to testify on a bill he's sponsoring to allow gay couples to marry.
The Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary committee forwarded the bill to the full Senate in an 8-4 party-line vote.
A similar bill failed two years ago.
Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat who didn't vote last time, has had a change of heart and is now sponsoring the legislation.
"Civil rights is not to be placed on the ballot," Sweeney said upon hearing Christie's comments.
Sweeney said it's time for New Jersey to join six other states and 10 countries that sanction gay marriage.
Earlier, 127 professors from 48 law schools around the country signed a letter saying New Jersey's civil union law cannot be fixed.
Christie, a Catholic, has previously said that he believes marriage is between one man and one woman but he supports civil unions, which the state recognizes.
During a news conference that followed the Bridgewater event, he said he would look at the gay marriage bill if it gained momentum, though he was unlikely to alter his opposition.