By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina voters will get to decide next May on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage after the Legislature gave final approval to the question Tuesday, despite protests that the question promoted intolerance and discrimination.
The state Senate voted 30-16 Tuesday in favor of putting the question on the statewide primary ballot- the minimum number of yes votes needed to meet the three-fifths majority for such amendments. The House approved the measure Monday with a few votes to spare.
North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast without such a prohibition in its constitution. State law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but amendment supporters argue that traditional marriage would be better protected against potential legal challenges by same-sex couples in six other states and the District of Columbia. Thirty states have a gay marriage ban in their constitutions.
Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, who had filed amendment bills for several years without success, finally won Tuesday after an hour of intense debate on the Senate floor. The amendment, which had been blocked for years by Democrats, won a hearing after Republicans took control of the General Assembly for the first time since 1870. Republicans voted heavily for the measure.
“If people reject it and say, `no, we don’t want this in the constitution,’ then I’ll live with it,” Forrester said, adding he would campaign at the state’s churches for its passage. He said the bill wasn’t designed to single out gays and lesbians.
“This wasn’t a slap in the face at them,” he added. “It was just something I thought we needed to do to continue to have a strong family structure here in North Carolina.”
Opponents said the question will hurt the state’s business climate because of the perception that gays and lesbians aren’t welcome. They likened the marriage amendment to previous constitutional provisions in North Carolina that banned interracial marriage and sought to discourage the desegregation of the public schools.
“This is the unfortunate history of social issues in our history of social issues in our state constitution,” said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. “How will the votes we cast today be seen through the lens of time? How will history remember this day?”
Debate on the amendment in the Senate began as several hundred opponents rallied behind the Legislative Building. Earlier, several business executives and a nonprofit leader warned passage would move jobs to other states and discourage companies that offer benefits to partners of same-sex couples from expanding here.
The impending eight-month campaign on the up-or-down vote next May 8 will harm young people who are questioning their sexuality and must see advertisements opposed to gay relationships, said Mitchell Gold, co-founder of an Alexander County furniture manufacturer and who is gay. He’s also a leader in the gay rights group Faith in America.
“This is a state of progress, but this amendment is really a black eye,” Gold said at a news conference. “It is sickening that they would put kids’ lives on the line for their political ambitions (and) their deeply held religious beliefs that are misguided, ill-informed and outdated.”