Gov. Chris Christie gets D+ in Civil Rights and Liberties from ACLU-NJ

June 9, 2014

NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has given Gov. Chris Christie a D+ (PDF) for his overall record on civil liberties and civil rights during his first term in office. The ACLU-NJ examined the governor’s record in 12 issue areas and gave him his lowest grades in the areas of separation of church and state, transparency, and separation of powers.

The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion and voting rights. The report card examines the Christie administration from January 19, 2010 when Gov. Christie was sworn into office, to January 20, 2014 when his first term ended.

“Gov. Christie’s overall record on civil liberties and civil rights has been poor, ranging mostly from mediocre to failing,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s first-term record on civil liberties will be remembered for its assaults on judicial independence and the separation of church and state, as well as for its disdain for transparency. Some of Governor Christie’s most frustrating civil liberties moments have been those instances where he has failed to back up bold words with substantive actions, such as in the areas of LGBT rights and the failed war on drugs.”

The first-term report card graded the governor on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties issues: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice. This report card expanded on the categories of the ACLU-NJ’s 2012 interim report card, which graded him in eight categories.

“The real concern here is not what these grades mean for Gov. Christie and his administration, but what they’ve meant for everyday New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “From loving couples seeking to get married, to sick patients in need of medical marijuana, to poor New Jerseyans struggling to find an affordable place to live, many of us have not had a friend in the Governor’s office. While there still remains time to improve, as of now, this administration’s legacy on civil rights and liberties is not a proud one.”

Christie’s highest grade came in the area of freedom of religion, the category in which he also earned his highest marks in the ACLU-NJ’s interim report card. Christie deservedly received praise for supporting a developer’s decision to construct a mosque and Muslim community center near the World Trade Center during the height of the controversy in 2011. Soon after, Christie garnered national attention for excoriating a faction that railed against the appointment of a Muslim lawyer to serve as a Superior Court judge.

Christie’s appreciation for freedom of religion swung too far in the other direction when it came down to state involvement in religion. In the category of separation of church and state, Christie received the lowest score – an F. Especially damning was his administration’s decision to give away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions: Beth Medrash Govoha, a school that trains Orthodox rabbis, and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian clergy.

The ACLU-NJ recognized his administration’s support for voting rights, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with a B-. In transparency, separation of powers and economic justice, Christie earned solid Fs for his abysmal record on all three issues across the board. The Bridgegate scandal exposed how frequently the administration attempted to keep government business out of the public eye, but it hardly stands in isolation.

Christie’s protracted fight against marriage equality, which ended only when it became clear that he would lose, cast a long shadow over some of his gestures of good will toward the LGBT community, resulting in his final grade of a D in LGBT rights. When it comes to immigrants’ rights, Gov. Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at a higher education by signing the NJ Dream Act, but he removed an important provision that would have fully opened the doors of opportunity by allowing them to apply for state financial aid, earning him an overall grade of a C in immigrants’ rights. Gov. Christie earned Cs in a plurality of other subjects as well, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, privacy, and criminal justice and drug policy, although even those grades ranged from C- to C+.

“The Christie administration deserves credit where credit is due, especially in taking a stand for religious expression and being responsive to voting concerns in the wake of Superstorm Sandy,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “But where Gov. Christie stumbles, such as when it comes to the separation of powers and to transparency, the bottom falls out. We hope the governor learned his civil liberties lesson from numerous court actions that were successfully brought against his administration during his first term, but if not, we’re ready to compel him to act as if he were an A student.”

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