Gov. Christie's typically bellicose demeanor, which has made him the subject of both endearment and scorn, means he is unlikely to back down from his position against gay marriage.

But were the governor to exhibit the type of thoughfulness that is requisite for anyone who truly aspires to one day be president of an entire nation, and not just the citizens who agree with him, then he would change his position.

Many had hoped the 2006 law allowing civil unions in New Jersey would satisfy the needs of homosexual couples who want to share households and have all the accompanying legal rights provided to married heterosexual couples. But the law has proved to be inadequate.

A report by the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission said that "while marriage is universally recognized . . . civil-union status must be explained repeatedly to employers, doctors, nurses, insurers, teachers, soccer coaches, emergency-room personnel, and the children of civil-union partners."

In effect, civil-union couples are treated as second-class citizens. They live in fear that one will end up in the hospital and the other will not be afforded any say about medical care; or worse, that one will die and their wishes as a couple as to how the estate should be handled will be ignored. Too many employers refuse to give same-sex couples benefits reserved for spouses.

Recognizing the failure of civil unions to give same-sex couples all the benefits of marriage except the application of that word to their relationships, a state Senate committee has passed a bill that would take away that lone restriction. Gays could marry in New Jersey. But Christie says he will veto the bill if the Legislature passes it.

The governor has tried to portray himself as a great democrat who believes such an important issue should be decided by referendum rather than left to a legislative body to determine. He's wrong, of course. Christie knows that black folks in the South would likely still be drinking from "colored" water fountains had segregation been decided by referendum.

American democracy doesn't mean the majority always rules; The rights of the minority must be protected. Civil rights shouldn't be subject to the vagaries of campaigns waged by various groups spending wads of cash to tilt public opinion as if they were selling a particular soap. Like slavery, like segregation, gay marriage is an issue to be decided legislatively.

Marriage, perhaps more than any other institution, tests this nation's core belief that government and religion should be separate. Tax and labor laws speak of marriage. So, if the government's definition of marriage changes, the constitutional rights of religious groups to practice their beliefs as they pertain to marriage must be protected. That may be difficult for legislators, but it's not impossible. Christie could help the effort.