Gay-marriage ban has issues

Some business leaders aren't sure about amending the state constitution.

Staff writerSeptember 6, 2011 

  • The proposal: When lawmakers return Monday, they will consider legislation calling for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

    An amendment means voters will decide whether or not same-sex marriage should be allowed.

    To get on next year's ballot, the amendment would need three-fifths majorities of the House and Senate.

    Current law: State law now defines marriage as between a man and woman.

With state legislators scheduled to return to session next week, some business leaders are concerned about how a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage could impede already sluggish job growth.

The Senate version of the proposed amendment could make it harder for the state to appeal to the high-income jobs it has pledged to recruit as well as hamper efforts of existing firms to attract the best workers regardless of their sexual orientation, said Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

"Our chamber has been working behind the scenes to make sure that legislators understand the potential negative impact on our business climate, our state's business reputation, and on the ability of employers to recruit and retain talent," Nelson said of the legislation that would turn a 1996 law banning same-sex marriage into a constitutional amendment. "We should not do anything that diminishes any corporation's interest in remaining here."

Although N.C. Chamber of Commerce leaders have said they haven't heard much from their members on the proposed amendment, Nelson said his chamber has held many conversations with other chambers across the state that have privately expressed concern due to the issue's hot-button nature.

In addition to worries about the amendment's effects on the state's tourism and business reputation, Nelson said one of the biggest concerns for business owners is the potential for the proposal to nullify the domestic partner benefits some offer.

"It implies that it would be illegal for an employer to recognize domestic partnership in North Carolina," he said. "It could intrude on the right of the private sector to provide competitive benefits to its employees."

In the last 10 years, the number of same-sex households in North Carolina increased 68 percent to 27,250, according to U.S. Census data released in June. N.C.-based companies like Progress Energy, Bank of America and SAS Institute all offer domestic partner benefits, as do more than half of the country's Fortune 500 companies.

Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, said the proposed amendment would only solidify a law that has been on the books for 15 years and there is no chance the benefits would go unrecognized.

"That's the biggest leap of logic that I've ever heard them say," Folwell said. "It's a contract between private businesses and their employees. It has nothing to do with the government. It has nothing to do with the constitution."

Folwell cited Forbes' latest Best States for Business list, in which eight of the top 10 ranked states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. North Carolina, ranked third, and Washington, ranked fifth, have statute-only bans.

"The best thing for business right now is to bring certainty to this issue because it's already the law," he said.

Signatures

More than 230 business leaders have signed a declaration against the proposed legislation on the advocacy group Equality NC's web site, said Alex Miller, interim executive director of the group.

"To jeopardize one job or one business in this state is incredibly irresponsible," Miller said. "This amendment sends a very clear signal that only some kinds of people, jobs and companies are welcome in our state."

Designer furniture-maker Mitchell Gold opened his doors 22 years ago in Taylorsville, where he still employs about 600 workers. Openly gay and married a year ago in Iowa, Gold said the legislature's focus on "mean-spirited and ignorant" legislation instead of job creation is frustrating for him as a business owner and is causing him to consider relocating.

"It's not just recruiting gay people, but it's recruiting people if they're straight and they don't want to be around a place that's discriminating," Gold said. "It's a black mark on our state."

Phil Kowalczyk, Americas region president of Wake Forest-based The Body Shop, wrote a letter to legislators urging them to oppose the proposal and said the global beauty retailer would not have chosen to relocate its Americas region headquarters to the state from San Francisco four years ago had the amendment been in place.

The amendment "would send a signal to major employers across the nation that our state is not welcoming of the diverse and creative workforce that is needed to compete in the global economy," Kowalczyk wrote.

Folwell maintains that a "human rights issue" will not be enough to dissuade healthy businesses producing goods people want from entering the state. The proposal "merely gives constituents the opportunity to take the law into their own hands by voting to pass - or reject - the amendment," he said.

"At the end of the day, it's already the law," Folwell said. "Whatever the people decide, I'm cool."