States across the country in the last three weeks started moving toward allowing same-sex couples to marry, while North Carolina is looking to catch a wave that crested eight years ago by asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Six states and Washington, D.C., now allow same-sex marriage. The Washington state legislature passed a law earlier this month making it the seventh state. The Maryland legislature is expected to send a bill allowing same-sex marriage to the governor by the end of this week. In both states, opponents have said they will push for a voter referendum.
Now the focus is on North Carolina with supporters looking for another victory for a constitutional ban. Opponents are hoping that North Carolina will be the first Southern state to say no to a ban.
"The movement toward securing rights for same-sex couples has been flying ahead at breakneck speed," said Roger Hartley, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University. But that change is also facing strong resistance, he said.
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a national poll taken in October that showed the public was almost evenly divided on the issue: 46 percent of those surveyed favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry and 45 percent were opposed. Other national polls taken last year by Gallup and CNN showed a slim majority - 51 percent - in favor of same-sex marriage for the first time.
In North Carolina, opinion polls show a majority of residents support some type of legal recognition for same-sex couples, whether it be civil unions or marriage. Amendment opponents see this as evidence that the proposed constitutional ban - which would also prohibit civil unions and domestic partnership - runs counter to changing attitudes.
In the people's hands
Amendment supporters say the legalization of same-sex marriage in other states is added proof that North Carolina needs voters to define marriage in the constitution.
"By pushing this decision to the people, it gets it out of the minds and hands of the legislature and one activist judge who can do anything about it at any time," said Rep. Dale Folwell, a Winston-Salem Republican who is running for lieutenant governor.
Thirty states have already approved constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast without one. Proposed amendments will appear on ballots here and in Minnesota in the May 8 primary
A handful of states passed such amendments before 2002. But the big push peaked after the 2003 Massachusetts court ruling that said its constitution guaranteed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Twenty-three of the 30 states that have amendments passed them between 2004 and 2006.
Amendments have passed in every state that's put them on the ballot.
North Carolina would have had its amendment up for a vote back when most other states were doing it, Folwell said, except that the Democratic-controlled legislature buried the bills. Republicans now control both chambers in North Carolina.
About a dozen states that passed constitutional amendments or laws barring same-sex marriage still recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin passed constitutional same-sex marriage bans, but legislatures in those states later voted to allow civil unions or to confer legal rights to domestic partners.
No civil unions
The North Carolina amendment would close off recognition of domestic partnerships or civil unions for gay or heterosexual couples. The only way to legalize civil unions or domestic partnerships if the amendment passes would be for voters to approve another constitutional amendment.
Tami Fitzgerald, founding member of the pro-referendum committee, said the amendment is meant to "settle the issue once and for all" and prevent courts or advocates of same-sex marriage from one day using civil unions or domestic partnerships to push for full marriage rights.
"It's what I'd call a camel's nose under the tent," she said. "Civil unions and domestic partnerships are marriage substitutes. It gives all the rights of marriage. They just don't go all the way."
A U.S. Census Bureau survey estimates that there are more than 198,000 households in North Carolina where partners are unmarried.
More than 91 percent of those households are heterosexual couples living together.
"That's one of the reasons why this amendment is so bad, it takes away any sort of legal recognition of unmarried couples - that's straight or gay unmarried couples," said Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a gay-rights advocacy group.
Amendment foes argue that children being raised by unmarried parents will lose health insurance coverage offered by municipalities that provide domestic partner benefits. The amendment will jeopardize other laws that recognize legal relationships between unmarried couples, they say.
Amendment proponents call those objections scare tactics. "The amendment does not change the existing policy of the state of North Carolina at all that's been there for the last 340 years," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican.
Changes in attitudes make it less likely that voters will want to keep the state tied to 300-year-old policies, said Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, a North Carolina-based organization that fights what it calls "religious-based bigotry" against gays.
Childers said public opinion of homosexuality is changing, just as opinions changed on segregation and women's rights.
"The polling shows that we have reached a tipping point where a majority of Americans no longer consider homosexuality immoral conduct," he said. "I honestly believe there's an awakening happening in the American public."
Fitzgerald said all the patchwork of state laws points to the need for a federal marriage amendment that would codify the definition of marriage in the U.S. Constitution that would resolve "a clear clash of values."
North Carolina voters will have their say on a state amendment on May 8.