By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. – Several Democratic lawmakers and black clergy took opposing viewpoints earlier this week on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in North Carolina, signaling the proposed ballot question still divides racial, partisan and religious groups as the Legislature prepares to consider it.
Key members of the House Democratic Caucus gathered for a news conference Tuesday at the Legislative Building to speak against the amendment, which if approved likely would be on the statewide ballot in 2012. They brought along executives of North Carolina businesses who said such an amendment would discourage new, growing companies from calling the state home because of a perception its leaders don’t like gays and lesbians.
“If the bill sponsors get their way, we can look forward to an unnecessary, nasty and divisive public fight that will document that North Carolina is a place struggling with its future,” said Andrew Spainhour, general counsel for Replacements Ltd., a Greensboro-based company that sells discontinued tableware and provides health insurance and other benefits to same-sex partners of the company’s employees. “How can we say we take economic development seriously when we propose an anti-gay campaign that runs contrary to the employment practices of a majority of Fortune 500 companies?”
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said moving forward with the amendment “sends the wrong message to North Carolinians crying out for jobs” and to North Carolina-based military service members who are gay and will be able to serve openly soon with the elimination of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Supporters of the amendment counter that states that already have prohibitions of same-sex marriage in their constitutions aren’t seeing businesses leave for other states because of that issue.
Several black ministers who spoke at a later news conference said it’s contrary to the Christian faith and the Bible for same-sex couples to marry. They called on the Legislature to let the public vote on adding the prohibition to the constitution to protect the institution of marriage. The Rev. Johnny Hunter of Cliffdale Community Church in Fayetteville said gay rights activists have offended black people by equating the efforts to support gay marriage with civil rights activities in the 1960s to remove racism from the law books.
“Blacks know what real discrimination is all about,” said Hunter, referring to slavery and Jim Crow-era laws that preventing blacks from voting. “They’re disrespecting … the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.”
As symbols, Hunter held up two closed padlocks and hit them together to show they couldn’t unlock each other. The same way, he said, two people of the same sex can’t consummate a marriage the way God intended.
“This is not a political issue,” said the Rev. Donald Fozard of Mt. Zion Christian Church of Durham. “This is a moral issue.”
But the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the sponsors of the amendment bill, who are overwhelmingly Republican, are actually trying to take civil rights backward with the amendment.
“No matter our color or faith traditions, those who stand for love and justice are not about to fall for this amendment trick,” Barber said in a statement released by the state NAACP.
State law already defines a valid marriage as one “created by the consent of a male and female person,” and a 1996 state law says same-sex marriages sanctioned in other states are invalid in North Carolina. Democrats contend the amendment is designed to help Republicans bring out more voters during a 2012 election year that likely will include tight elections in North Carolina for the state’s 15 electoral votes for president and for governor.
To put it on the ballot, three-fifths of the members in both the House and Senate would have to vote for the proposal. That would require a handful of House Democrats to join all or almost all the Republicans in the chamber. House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said he wasn’t confident he knew the outcome of any vote.
“We are optimistic, but the issue is not settled,” Hackney said.
Supporters and opponents of the gay marriage amendment also announced rallies next week in Raleigh. The North Carolina Values Coalition scheduled a rally Monday, while Equality NC planned an event the next day featuring country music singer Chely Wright, who married her same-sex partner this ummer.