When Libby Hodges moved from Georgia to Durham with her family, she looked for a job with an employer that had an anti-discrimination policy that covered gay employees.
She took a job with the city of Durham, which has the added bonus of offering domestic partner benefits to its workers. Those benefits allowed Hodges to include in her insurance plan the 4-year-old daughter she and her wife, Melissa Hodges, are raising.
She could lose that coverage if the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions passes.
Im afraid theyre going to take (benefits) away, Libby Hodges said.
The constitutional amendment states that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.
Amendment opponents and supporters agree that health insurance and other benefits offered by local governments for gay and unmarried heterosexual couples would be disallowed if the amendment passes. Such domestic partner benefits are offered by nine local governments across the state including Durham, Orange and Mecklenburg counties, Durham, Chapel Hill and Asheville. The change would affect about 70 households.
But the impact on corporate employees is more unclear and could affect far more people.
In more than 198,000 households in the state, partners are unmarried, according to a recent U.S. Census survey. More than 91 percent of those are heterosexual couples.
Amendment opponents say corporate benefits for unmarried couples could be at risk if they are challenged in court.
But amendment supporters say such concerns are unwarranted, and some of the states largest employers, including Bank of America and Duke University, say they will continue to offer domestic partner benefits.
There is enough ambiguity in this, I expect the courts will have to sort it out, said Michael J. Schoenfeld, the universitys vice president for public affairs. Until then, were not making any changes in our policy.
Three Campbell University law school professors, writing about the potential effects of the amendment, said it does not prevent private employers from extending health insurance benefits to those domestic partners, no matter how those relationships are defined.
Private companies started offering domestic partner benefits years before states started voting on marriage, and constitutional amendments have no legal effect on whether they continue, said Paul Fronstin, director of the health, research and education program for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefits Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
Stam: Policies could be changed
Government domestic partner benefits are a different matter, and the ability of local governments to continue offering them may depend on how the beneficiaries are defined.
Amendment supporters say cities and counties would be able to get around a new restriction by changing their policies to allow third party beneficiaries. Under this idea, relationships would be based on something other than a domestic partnership.
A city could allow an employee to pick one other person, his or her choice, House Majority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, said in an interview earlier this year. Or they could say, pick a person who lives in your household; pick a person you share the rent with. Government is not in the business of deciding who youre sleeping with.
Libby and Melissa Hodges were married in Vancouver, Canada, in 2006, but their marriage is not recognized here. North Carolina has a law against same-sex marriage. Under federal law, states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other jurisdictions.
If the amendment passes, Libby Hodges is not confident that the benefits would be restored.
Once theyre taken away, its so hard to get things back, she said. This is going to be a long, protracted effort one way or the other.
Melissa Hodges works for an employer that does not offer domestic partner benefits. Their daughter could be covered by Melissa Hodges employer, but the cost would be four times higher than what the family pays now, Libby Hodges said, and would put a giant dent in the household budget. Melissa Hodges and the Hodges daughter appear in a new television ad for the anti-amendment campaign.
Twenty-two Durham city employees use its domestic partner benefits. They are 10 households with opposite-sex partners, nine with same-sex partners, and three where a dependent child is covered under an employees plan.
State government does not offer domestic partner benefits.
Headed to court
If the amendment passes, the states courts may end up deciding whether local governments domestic partner benefits are allowed.
Michigan passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in 2004, setting off a years-long legal and political fight in that state.
Michigans Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the amendment barred state universities and other government entities from offering domestic partner benefits. By that time, public entities that offered those benefits were rewriting their rules to work around the prohibition. Benefits were open to other eligible individuals rather than domestic partners.
But the attempt to work around the ban had limited effect. Michigan last year made it illegal for local governments to offer those benefits, though they are still available to Michigan state and public university employees.
In 2008, the Idaho attorney general said an Idaho citys offer of domestic partner benefits was not allowed under that states constitutional same-sex marriage ban.
Other states with constitutional same-sex marriage bans have cities that offer domestic partner benefits, but those states do not have language as broad as North Carolinas proposed amendment, said Suzanne Reynolds, a professor and expert in family law at Wake Forest University.
I think its clear that if Amendment One passes, no public employer may extend domestic benefits to employees, she said.
The coverage offers benefits beyond covering bills.
Stacey Poston of Durham said she recently documented the benefits that cover her partner for a mortgage company to show they were in a long-standing relationship.
Its the only paper I have, Poston said. It was an easy way to say, Heres my form, a form I filled out 10 years ago.