N.C. leaders remain steady avoiding marriage vote

Posted on 05 Mar 2009 at 5:52pm
By Gary D. Robertson Associated Press

Estimated 3,000 rally to call for anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, but Democrat-controlled legislature not likely to comply

RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s little doubt lawmakers heard the voices of thousands of Christian conservatives outside the Legislative Building seeking a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

There’s also little doubt the rally participants won’t get what they want.

While voters in all other Southeastern states have approved state constitutional amendments restricting marriage between one man and one woman since 2004, North Carolina has declined to follow along. A combination of partisan strategy, steady opposition from gay rights groups and a lack of court challenges to current state law has kept the issue off the ballot.

And it’s likely to stay off as long as Democrats run the Legislature.

After the protesters — numbering at least 3,000 by police estimate — ended their rally with the chants "Let us vote! Let us vote!" in near-freezing temperatures outdoors, Democratic leaders in the House required that a marriage amendment bill co-sponsored by 66 of the chamber’s 120 members go through four committees before floor debate can begin.

That’s an unheard number of committees for any bill in the Legislature. And a similar Senate bill was sent last week to a committee that hasn’t met in years.

"Why put up a ballot on the measure that would stir up the culture wars and divert from addressing the budget issues and the economic issues?" asked Ferrel Guillory, who tracks Southern political trends as director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

North Carolina state law already states that a valid marriage is one "created by the consent of a male and female person," and that’s good enough for leaders of the House and Senate. They’re just fine not being among the 30 states nationwide that have added that prohibition to the state constitution.

"The fact remains that it’s already the law in North Carolina," said House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, who used a procedural move two years ago to block a similar amendment from coming to the floor. "And I don’t foresee that about to change in any way."

But speakers at the "Stand Up for Traditional Marriage" rally said a voter-approved amendment would protect traditional marriage in a way that a law that can be changed easily cannot. An Iowa statute similar to the one in North Carolina is being challenged in court by several same-sex couples.

"Time after time, we have discovered that statute does not do the job," said House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake.

Religious leaders point to tradition, the Bible and polls showing a strong majority in North Carolina support a ban on same-sex marriage.

"We believe that marriage is not an experiment. We believe that marriage is a divine institution founded by our creator," said the Rev. Ron Baity, a Winston-Salem Baptist pastor and leader of the Return America group that organized the rally, also attended by Catholics and other social conservatives.

Gay rights supporters have argued an amendment would etch discrimination into the constitution.

"We really believe it’s always wrong to put the rights of a minority up for a vote," said Ian Palmquist with Equality NC. "The constitution should be there to protect rights, not take them away."

North Carolina sits in contrasts to a political landscape in the South where Republicans have dominated state elections during the past 20 years. Except for four years in the House in the 1990s, Democrats have held or shared leadership in the General Assembly almost uninterrupted since the late 1890s.

"Why should legislative leaders of the Democratic Party put on the ballot [something] that would draw more conservatives, even nonvoters to the polls?" Guillory asked.

North Carolina also may be less a target for litigation because states in the Northeast and West — where gay rights have advanced — generally have constitutions with language that singles out equal benefits for all under the law, said Georgetown University government professor Clyde Wilcox, who studies politics and gay rights.

"There’s not a really high likelihood that a [North Carolina] state Supreme Court would interpret their constitution to permit same-sex marriage," Wilcox said.

Still, that’s not enough for rally participants to be persuaded against a constitutional amendment.

"People should be heard," said Margaret Ollis, 64, who came from snowy Avery County to participate. Otherwise, she said, "it would be in a judge’s hands, not in the people’s hands."

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