Supporters of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage came to Raleigh on Tuesday with new confidence that the Republican-controlled legislature, eager to take on social issues, will back their cause.
About 3,500 people, including pastors and evangelists, assembled behind the state legislature to show their support for the gay-marriage ban. As a group of girls played patriotic music on their violins, rally-goers waved American flags of all sizes, tea party activists assembled their folding chairs, and young couples stood with Bibles in hand.
Clergy who support gay rights held a smaller news conference.
Sen. James Forrester, a Gaston County Republican and the sponsor of the bill, has repeatedly pushed the initiative over the past eight years. But now, with Republicans in control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century, the amendment has a better chance of getting on the ballot.
The proposed amendment needs a three-fifths vote in the House and the Senate in order to appear on the 2012 ballot. Currently, the count is close in both chambers. The bill would need 30 Senate votes, and has 23 sponsors. In the House, where 72 votes are needed, a constitutional amendment bill has 66 sponsors.
More than a dozen legislators who support the amendment attended the rally. Sen. Dan Soucek, a Republican from Boone and a bill sponsor, said that although "the opposition is ferocious," he is determined to write "correct moral standards" into the North Carolina constitution.
"We've been fighting for this for a long time," said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican representing Burke and McDowell counties, now in his seventh term. "I fully expect it to pass this year and I expect a large bipartisan vote on it."
Clergy has its say
But the prospect of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage also has energized opponents.
Gay-rights supporters say discrimination should not be written into the constitution, that the rights of a minority should not be put to a vote of the majority, and that the anti-gay rhetoric that comes with the marriage debate harms gay teenagers.
Inside the legislative building, clerics dressed in robes, clerical collars or yarmulkes held a news conference to counter the rally's pro-amendment message.
The amendment "is not fair and it certainly is not just," said Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, pastor of Clinton Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Hickory.
North Carolina is the only Southern state whose constitution does not prohibit same-sex marriage.
The sponsoring senator's wife, Mary Frances Forrester, is the associate director of the North Carolina chapter of Concerned Women of America, a national group that promotes conservative values. Speaking at the rally, she said the proposal is protection from "liberal activist judges."
It was these judges, she said, who took prayer out of schools, who said that Boy Scouts had to accept homosexual leaders and who "ruled that unborn children weren't protected by our constitution."
Citing 'biblical marriage'
Tuesday's rally was organized by Return America, a North Carolina Christian group that promotes "biblical marriage," and has previously demonstrated in the Capitol. The group's president, Dr. Ron Baity, said that constitutional amendments were eventually approved in every other state when they got on the ballot.
A vote in North Carolina is "long overdue," he said.
If the measure goes to a statewide vote, it would pass with a simple majority.
A group opposing the amendment, Faith in America, has purchased billboard space in Raleigh and is running newspaper ads challenging "religious-based bigotry."
"Bigotry is the driving force behind this amendment," said Brent Childers, the group's executive director. "It really is the driving force behind the opposition to full equality."
Poll finds opposition
An Elon University poll in February found that 56 percent of the 467 North Carolina respondents opposed the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Twenty-eight percent said they support full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Nancy Garner, 72, came to the rally from Eden, along with 10 members of Eden Baptist Church. Her group came because "we believe in marriage between one man and one woman, not in anything else," she said. "Just like the Bible says."
Rep. Marcus Brandon, a High Point Democrat, acknowledged that the new GOP majority energized gay marriage opponents, who see a chance to get the proposed ban on a ballot.
"Jesus was a compassionate person," he said. "Jesus would not be having a rally outside right now."
Brandon, who is gay, said the legislature should be focused on the 37,000 long-term unemployed people whose benefits have been cut off, students not graduating and families losing their homes.
"This issue is so '80s," he said. "We've really just moved beyond it."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4821