Just say no

The so-called marriage amendment would set North Carolina back. We must hope it fails.

May 6, 2012 

North Carolina has proudly been called the “buckle on the Bible Belt,” and at times that buckle has seemed as large as one of those coffee saucers worn by world champion cowboys. Never has it been shinier in the eyes of some than in the last weeks and months, amidst the campaign to amend the state constitution so that the only valid form of marriage or “domestic legal union” would be between a man and a woman.

If the amendment is approved by the state’s voters on Tuesday, its effect would be, at the least, to prevent future governmental sanction of any and all legal unions between gay people, and that is its intent.

Yes, there are in the minds of many in our state fundamental religious beliefs that they interpret, sincerely and without question, as dictating that there is one and only one form of marriage acceptable in the eyes of God. Their beliefs deserve respect.

Marriage, conventional marriage, is a good thing. The family that forms around it is the cornerstone of neighborhoods, societies, countries. Indeed, that’s why many leaders, religious and secular, have been alarmed by the increasing births of children to unwed mothers, by high divorce rates, by the failure of absentee fathers to support and nurture their children, who are in the eyes of the law illegitimate.

Those alarms have been sounded by liberals and conservatives alike, from the White House to the courthouse.

What it’s about

But the upcoming vote on the amendment is not, or should not be, about religious beliefs that pertain to marriage. It is about strengthening the state’s current denial of marriage privileges to gays, and denying as well the possibility of non-religious civil unions. Such unions would not be “marriage,” but they would offer a framework for gay couples to have legal protections, encouraging long-lasting relationships. It’s almost inexplicable why the amendment backers went so far as to rule out any future accommodations of this type.

Just as important to many, the amendment would codify religious doctrine about marriage into the state constitution, in what surely would prompt a long-term legal challenge involving federal recognition of the importance of the separation of church and state.

There will be other challenges as well, as legal scholars have faced off, with some saying that unmarried domestic partners now granted insurance benefits, etc., by corporations (an increasing number) might find those benefits threatened based on this amendment. Those same scholars fear that custody rights for those unmarried couples who have children would be endangered.

It’s true that scholars are not unanimous. But those who support the amendment are hardly certain there would not be problems. Their argument is that there probably would not be. That’s not a confidence builder.

Whatever the legal positions, the so-called Amendment One is sure to plunge the state into courtrooms for years. That’s one reason N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is opposed to the amendment, saying it is poorly written and unclear.

Foes across the board

Gov. Beverly Perdue, like Cooper a Democrat, is prominent among other officials who are against the amendment. And Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, whose bona fides as a conservative are unquestioned, also has said she is opposed. Ellmers does not favor same-sex marriage, but she has noted that the amendment would eliminate the possibility of civil unions.

While many supporters of the amendment cite their religious beliefs as a reason, it has met well-grounded resistance in many churches and synagogues.

And many business leaders, including Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, believe the amendment might well cost North Carolina jobs if it prompted businesses that want to provide benefits for partners (non-spouses) of employees to think twice about relocating here. Chambers of commerce in Orange and Durham counties also oppose it, sensing the hostile climate toward gay people that passage of the amendment would create.

Yes, the amendment contains language saying it won’t stop “private contracts” within businesses, but what that language actually would or would not permit likely would have to be settled in court. And it would absolutely discriminate against public employees.

The amendment isn’t just about religion, then. North Carolina law already bans gay marriage, and that law is unlikely to be overturned by the state’s elected judges. The amendment was born out of politics, and everyone knows it.

The family tree

A “gay marriage amendment,” or whatever one chooses to call it, has long been a dream of many conservatives, who have succeeded in getting such measures passed in surrounding states. It plants a flag on state constitutions, taking rights away from certain groups, though constitutions have traditionally been about expanding them.

North Carolina’s proposed amendment is more sweeping than those in most other states, some of which allow for the possibility of civil unions. It is a spirited and blatant attempt to galvanize the Republican Party’s conservative base, closely aligned as it is with conservative church-goers. That is one of its purposes, to be sure.

But those proponents who expect they’ll herd conservatives in a stampede may be surprised. North Carolina is a conservative state, but it also has shown a moderate streak, and overall, an occasional tendency to break away from the pack. It did not, for example, join some other Southern states in closing schools during the days of desegregation. The state has been historically proud of its independence. So it may be that the people, the voters in this case, are not as eager to follow Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana down the marriage amendment path.

Hearts and minds

Constitutional amendments should be about law, not about religion, and not about the social agendas of conservative or liberal politicians. They should be solidly constructed to protect rights and weather the test of time, like cornerstones. They should stand for all the people. This one, instead, is bitterly divisive. Even one of its prominent backers, the speaker of the state House, has said he doubts that, if passed, it will stand beyond another generation.

Amendment One meets none of the criteria by which a constitution can properly be modified. It is motivated by politics, driven in some cases by a vindictive attitude toward groups of people not approved of by those who believe themselves to be in the “mainstream.”

Marriage is far too strong an institution to have phony “protections” like this one. And the final and sad irony is that this amendment is being pushed by the very people who fancy themselves enemies of what they call “big government,” yet in this case, they’re fine with government intruding in people’s personal lives.

But the people have the final say, and they can say no.

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