By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. – Now the real debate over gay marriage in North Carolina begins.
Residents should prepare for passionate and pricey campaigns over the definition of marriage in the next eight months, if previous ballot questions in other states and recent debate in North Carolina are any indication. Voters will decide in a May 8 referendum whether the state becomes like the rest of the Southeast and has a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
Groups watching last week’s votes by the General Assembly to place the question on the ballot are huddling over how they’ll attempt to influence the outcome.
Proponents and opponents of the amendment say they’re preparing to raise possibly millions of dollars to get out their messages. Money is also needed to boost grass-roots organizing with churchgoers, clergy and neighborhood activists on both sides of the issue.
“I do think you’ll see significant spending from both sides,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that backs laws to promote traditional marriage, but “I’m very confident that the voters of North Carolina will vote to amend the constitution.”
Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said “these campaigns that we’ve seen in other states are expensive, especially if you get into TV advertising.” Although every state that’s placed a gay marriage ban amendment on the ballot has ultimately approved it, he’s hopeful that North Carolina voters will continue to want to stand alone in the South: “Fair-minded North Carolinians want to maintain that status.”
Expect the debate to fall along the lines presented in the weeks leading up to the Legislature’s votes, pushed through by its new Republican leaders.
Pro-amendment forces say they are trying to preserve traditional marriage from potential legal challenges by same-sex couples married in other states and want to seek recognition.
“This campaign is about the positive benefits of marriage and protecting that,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition. “It’s not the opponents’ lifestyle.”
Opponents who tried unsuccessfully to keep the amendment off the ballot said it would discourage businesses from setting up shop in the state. State law already limits marriage to a man and a woman. They also say it goes too far by banning civil unions and threatening other benefits to same-sex couples.
“It’s largely a matter where they’re writing discrimination into our constitution,” said Steve Tanis, 44, of Greensboro, who attended an anti-amendment rally at the Legislative Building with his longtime partner, Rich Garraputa. “To me, this is an abomination.”
Thirty other states have approved constitutional amendments designed to prevent same-sex marriages. It’s a track record that gives amendment supporters in North Carolina confidence, but opponents say people are becoming more accepting of same-sex couples. Both sides point to polls they say shows the public agrees with them.
Groups both in North Carolina and nationwide aren’t saying yet exactly how much money they’ll need to raise in a competitive ballot campaign.
Activists interviewed said the amounts raised won’t reach the levels of those in California, where voters in November 2008 overturned a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and narrowly approved an initiative that abolished such unions. The two sides combined raising a record $86.1 million in contributions, with opponents of the amendment raising $45.6 million. Supporters raised $40.5 million, according to a report by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics. The outcome is still being challenged in court.
Opponents of another 2008 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Florida in November 2008 outraised proponents, $4.3 million to $1.6 million, the institute’s report said. The ballot measure still was approved. In Maine, where in November 2009 voters narrowly approved an amendment repealed a law passed by the Legislature to sanction gay marriage, about $9.6 million was spent by the two sides, with gay marriage supporters raising the most.
The National Organization for Marriage gave nearly $2 million to a Maine group seeking the gay marriage repeal, while Human Rights Campaign donated $3.4 million to a California group backing gay marriage during 2008, according to the groups’ annual tax filings with the IRS.
John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said he wasn’t persuaded yet that money raised for North Carolina will reach levels the ballot questions have seen in other states.
“I think you’re going to see some gauging over the end of this year and early next year,” he said. “If you start seeing money really being raised in a substantial way, (then) there’s people willing to invest and make this competitive.”
Each side says it’s concerned the other will use harsh words to turn the debate acrimonious and bitter.
Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, a longtime amendment supporter, called gay-friendly Asheville a “cesspool of sin” in the run-up to the vote. Anti-amendment supporters already have warned putting a question on the ballot that will encourage bullying of gay youth, possibly leading them to commit suicide.
Faith in America, a Hickory area-based group that’s focusing on what it calls religious-based bigotry, said they hope to persuade North Carolina voters in comfortable settings. It plans to hold a question-and-answer session in Hendersonville on Tuesday night in which they hope to lay out a case against the amendment.
“We really want to emphasize the high stakes in all this,” Faith in America Executive Director Brent Childers said.