The House voted 75-42 Monday to let voters decide whether a ban on same-sex marriage should be written into the state constitution, starting North Carolina on a track to join a majority of states with similar prohibitions.
Bill supporters decided to put the question on the May primary ballot next year rather than the November 2012 general election ballot, ensuring the proposal would win support from enough Democrats to clear the 72 House-vote hurdle for proposed constitutional changes.
The move alleviated concerns among Democrats who support the amendment that Republicans were pushing the question to boost turnout from social conservatives for next year's presidential election. At least one Democrat, Rep. Jim Crawford of Oxford, said moving the vote to May was crucial to winning his support. Ten Democrats and 65 Republicans voted for the amendment.
But the May vote also makes it more likely that the amendment will win overwhelming approval, said one Democrat who opposed it, because Republicans will be drawn to the polls by the GOP presidential primary.
The issue now moves to the state Senate, which is expected to debate the amendment today. It is not certain that the Senate has the votes to pass it. The House and Senate must approve the proposal by three-fifths votes, but a simple majority of primary election votes would be needed to write the ban into the Constitution.
The state has a law defining marriage as a heterosexual union, but the amendment's supporters say changing social tides will make it likely that gay couples married in New York will move to North Carolina and seek legal rights.
"They're going to bring with them their same-sex marriages," said Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican and House majority leader. "They're going to want to get divorced" and have custody issues decided, he said. "We're not equipped to handle that."
'A transient issue'
Opponents said the amendment is an attempt to hold back change and force future generations to live with a discriminatory constitutional clause they don't support.
"This is a transient issue of public policy and it has no place in the Constitution of North Carolina," said Rep. Joe Hackney, the House Minority Leader and an Orange County Democrat.
The proposed ban has divided religious leaders, triggered long and emotional debates about what God wants, and engaged national gay rights and social conservative advocacy groups.
Opponents said the amendment will lead to more bullying of gay youth and drive some to suicide, and invalidate domestic violence protections for unmarried couples. Business leaders said it would discourage companies from coming to the state. On Monday, 76 CEOs from around the state signed an open letter to lawmakers asking them to halt the effort.
The bill's supporters "are responsible for every job, every company, every tax dollar and every tourist dollar as well as every life that this amendment will certainly cost us," said Alex Miller, interim executive director of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina.
Equality N.C., which campaigned intensively to keep the proposal off the ballot, delivered boxes filled with 50,000 post cards opposing the bill to legislators Monday morning.
About an hour later, several hundred people attended a pro-amendment rally that was punctuated with chants of "Let the people vote. Let the people vote."
Sandra Polin of Raleigh, a member of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, handed out stickers.
"It's important for the voters themselves to have an opportunity to decide whether they want to honor God in the definition of marriage," she said.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, a High Point Democrat who is gay, said he heard someone shouting "abomination" through a loudspeaker, and it reminded him of the struggles of his youth.
He said God wants people to be compassionate.
"It's just this type of judging and this spirit of judging that makes it hard for people to accept Christ," Brandon said. "This is not the spirit of Jesus. Not even close."
The debate took an unusual turn when Rep. Glen Bradley of Youngsville, a Republican with a wide Libertarian streak, argued that state involvement in marriages usurped God's authority.
"If we care about the institution of marriage in North Carolina," he said, "we must move to remove authority of man over the dominion of God and not stake our claim even deeper than it is."
Bradley offered a change that would have asked voters to prohibit state licensing of all marriages in addition to the same-sex marriage ban. His amendment failed.
He ended up supporting the bill in a preliminary vote, but did not participate in the final vote. His Twitter feed said he left the chamber in disgust.
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