Obama opposes N.C. marriage amendment proposal

rchristensen@newsobserver.com tfunk@charlotteobserver.comMarch 16, 2012 

President Barack Obama Friday announced his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment on North Carolina’s May 8 ballot banning same sex marriages and civil unions, making a rare foray into a state referendum fight.

With North Carolina a key battleground state, Obama decided to take the potentially risky step of wading into a divisive social issue.

“While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples,” said Cameron French, his North Carolina campaign spokesman, in a statement.

“That’s what the North Carolina ballot initiative would do – it would single out and discriminate against committed gay and lesbian couples – and that’s why the President does not support it.”

The move has the potential to energize the Democratic base in the Tar Heel State, as well as win plaudits from the gay community nationally, which in the past has complained that the president has not been visible enough on their issues.

“I think it absolutely does make a difference,” said Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager for Protect All N.C. Families, which opposes the amendment. He said the opposition of Obama, along with that of nearly major Democratic candidate, and the Libertarian Party “continues to show the broad-based opposition to the amendment” and “how harmful and poorly worded it is.”

Praise and questions

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue tweeted kudos to the president writing that “its passage will hurt children and families in North Carolina.’’

Gay activist Tom Warshauer, who works for the City of Charlotte, said it was “great news” that Obama had come out against the proposed N.C. amendment – even if the president’s view of same-sex marriage is still “evolving.”

“It’ll certainly make people less frustrated” with the president on the issue, Warshauer said, and his decision to speak out against the amendment will also send the right signal to young gays and lesbians who are being bullied.

“We’d rather have people be for full equality,” Warshauer said. “But this amendment is writing discrimination into the Constitution ... and is just unnecessarily mean-spirited. ... And it’s important for young people to hear from the leader of their country that this shouldn’t be happening.”

But others wondered why Obama was involving himself in a local matter.

“I think President Obama has no business inserting himself into the people’s business in North Carolina,” said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Vote for Marriage North Carolina, which supports the amendment. “The people of North Carolina cannot sit by and let marriage as defined as between one man and one woman be destroyed by a handful of political activists or by the president.”

She noted that during the 2008 campaign, in an interview with California Pastor Rick Warren before an audience of evangelicals, Obama had declared “that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

The Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of Little Rock AME Zion Church, a 1,000-member black congregation in Charlotte, said he and his flock subscribe to their denomination’s teaching that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and that the president’s view isn’t likely to change their minds.

“We have great admiration for the president and stand with him on many things,” said Walker, who gave the invocation at a Democratic National Convention kickoff rally last year. “But we don’t have to agree with him on everything.”

The state Republican Party downplayed Obama’s announcement, noting that he had made similar comments last September in the Washington Blade, a publication with a primarily gay readership.

History on gay issues

This was the first time Obama has weighed in on a state referendum involving gay rights since he spoke out as a candidate in 2008 against California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The referendum overturned a California Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages,

As president, Obama has had little opportunity to become involved in similar state issues, although he stayed out of a Maine referendum repealing a law legalizing same-sex marriages in 2009.

While Obama won plaudits from the gay community for his repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military, there has been frustration about his lack of support for same-sex marriages.

More recently various members of his administration have voiced support for same sex-marriages including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the Democratic National Convention which will be held in Charlotte. Villaraigosa recently said he thought a gay-marriage plank should be included in the party platform. And at a recent fundraiser in Charlotte for the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights group, top Obama Cabinet member Kathleen Sebelius said it was “hugely important” to defeat the amendment.

Obama has said he is “evolving” on the issue of gay marriages.

“The president has hidden on this issue,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who supports civil unions, recently said on MSNBC. “He wants to have it both ways.”

Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University, said it was much safer for Obama to oppose the amendment because it was on the May primary ballot than if it had been on the November ballot.

“This is a no-lose political proposition for him,” Munger said. “President Obama gets to come out and say ‘Hey, gay community, I am taking a stand that you care about.’ But by the time November rolls around, no one is going to remember, or the ones that do would have voted against Obama anyway.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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