Before the same-sex marriage debate enters the voting booth next year, it will pass through the pulpit.
Does the Bible dictate that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is an abomination? Or is the Bible open to interpretation, and is God's love all-encompassing?
The conversation begins in the pews this morning, religious leaders say. Churches are expected to play a major role when North Carolina voters decide the divisive social issue on the May primary ballot.
"The pulpit will be ground zero, it will be the tip of the spear, for leading the charge to defend and protect marriage," said Pastor Patrick Wooden of Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, who supports the proposed constitutional amendment to ban marriage by two people of the same sex.
Pastor Richard Edens of United Church of Chapel Hill has preached against the marriage amendment. He said the topic is likely to remain a recurring theme for the next eight months.
"I think there are a growing number of people who want the Constitution to reflect the inclusiveness represented in the Gospel," Edens said.
The N.C. General Assembly approved the constitutional referendum last week. Voters will decide whether to make marriage between one man and one woman "the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."
Same-sex marriage already is illegal in North Carolina. The constitutional amendment, if approved by a majority of voters, would go farther to ban domestic partnerships and civil unions. And it would make it harder for future politicians to reverse the ban.
Republicans pushed the effort for many years and prevailed after they took control of both legislative chambers in the 2010 election.
The conservative Christian community was a key force in the battle. Republican leaders stood next to Wooden and other ministers who cast the debate in a religious and moral context from the start.
At the same time, opponents countered with pastors from "open and affirming" congregations who gave different interpretations of the Bible's red lettering.
If the history of this issue in other states is any indication of what North Carolinians can expect between now and the May vote, the faith community's divide is likely to continue as each side develops million-dollar referendum campaigns to support and oppose the amendment. In Minnesota, for example, the Catholic Church produced and distributed a DVD to 400,000 members that called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
The faithful divided
The N.C. Values Coalition has made it clear that the faith community is key to the amendment's success. Organizers said the group will work with churches to turn out supporters to the polls.
But opponents, led by Equality N.C., plan to counter the idea that all people of faith support the ban. Ryan Rowe, the group's faith community organizer, said the anti-amendment campaign will even reach out to Catholics by talking about God's affirming nature.
"I don't see how you can do any kind of justice work in the South without engaging the church," Rowe said.
The pulpit is no stranger to politics.
"Religion - people's faith - can have a powerful affect on people's vote," said John Green, the author of "The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections."
"And ministers and clergy can have a big impact, partly by what they might preach from the pulpit and also from what they do informally."
Thirty states have put language in their constitutions outlawing gay marriage. The issue comes before North Carolinians as opinions are shifting on the issue and as marriage alternatives, such as domestic benefits and civil unions, garner more support. Many major religious denominations now recognize gay clergy and perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
"Forty years ago, it never would have occurred to anyone to put it in the Constitution," Green said. "People who strongly believe in traditional marriage do get a sense that the world is changing and they are not happy about that."
Despite the shift, opponents are still eager to separate the gay marriage issue from faith - casting it instead as discrimination against a minority group.
In a letter to voters, Rev. William Barber, the president of the state's NAACP chapter, asserts that the legislature "is not the modern-day Council of Nicaea," referring to the ancient assembly that established a creed for the Christian faith.
"It should not be about religion," Barber said in an interview. "Those are all red herrings ... used to incite false passion."
Views of the Bible
But it's difficult to find such a conversation among Christians that doesn't refer back to the Bible and how to interpret it.
"There's never going to be a resolution to what the Bible says," said Mary McClintock Fulkerson, a theology professor at Duke Divinity School. "You cannot not bring other criteria to how you read the text."
Edens, the Chapel Hill minister who conducts same-sex marriage ceremonies, said the debate is evident in the Bible itself. He referred to how Jesus faced three temptations soon after starting his ministry.
In the story, "What does the devil do? Quote Scripture. What does Jesus do? Quote Scripture," Edens said. "From the very beginning, you have this debate going on."
Both McClintock Fulkerson and Edens gave lengthy lists of moralistic teachings and practices in the Bible that are no longer endorsed today, including slavery and the stoning of adulterers.
"I wish people would get into fuller, more complicated conversations about how they experience God's presence in the world as opposed to simply what the text says," added McClintock Fulkerson, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
But for many of those who favor the marriage amendment, what the Bible says is not a matter of rumination.
"The word of God tells us thou shall not lay with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination. The Bible is clear," said Pastor Donald Fozard of Mt. Zion Christian Church in Durham.
Likewise, Wooden, the Raleigh pastor, questions the convictions of Christians who try to assimilate the Bible.
"I don't side with those Christians who have become bored with the Bible and think they are wiser than the Lord," Wooden said. "For those Christians who disagree with God, they may be well-intentioned but they are misguided."
The nuances of the conversation are not always stark.
Mark Harris, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte and the president-elect of the Southern Baptist State Convention, has helped push the church further to the right. But he said that the proposed constitutional amendment is not about "banning gay marriage."
"We have to keep in mind that God loves the homosexual, but God hates the sin of homosexuality," Harris said. "From our perspective, it's all about protecting the sanctity of marriage."
He believes Baptists will "overwhelmingly support the referendum."
"We can imagine on numerous occasions between now and May that I will take the opportunity to remind ... people of the importance of what we say we believe, and I'll remind people of the importance to execute their rights of citizenship," Harris said.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Michael Gordon contributed to this report.
email@example.com or 919-829-4698