By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. – Gov. Beverly Perdue announced Friday she’ll vote against a change to North Carolina’s constitution next May that would prohibit gay marriage, saying that although she backs traditional matrimony, the question if approved could harm the state’s economy and job creation.
Perdue, a Democrat, announced her feelings on the statewide ballot measure less than four weeks after the Republican-led Legislature pushed it through the House and Senate. While Perdue criticized General Assembly leaders last month for pushing the amendment as part of their social agenda at a time when citizens want elected officials to get the economy moving, she hadn’t expressed her views on the question itself.
Perdue said in a prepared statement she believes marriage is between one man and one woman and voted while in the Legislature for a 1996 law so that North Carolina couldn’t recognize same-sex marriages in other states.
“I continue to support that law today,” Perdue said. “But I’m going to vote against the amendment because I cannot in good conscience look an unemployed man or woman in the eye and tell them that this amendment is more important than finding them a job.”
Amendment supporters said the constitutional prohibition would help the state defend itself against legal challenges by same-sex married couples in other states. The proposal also would bar the state from recognizing civil unions and other same-sex partnerships.
Gay rights supporters said the amendment is spurring people on to add formal discrimination into the constitution. Perdue said several business leaders have told her the change would “harm our state’s business climate and make it harder to grow jobs here.”
Perdue didn’t give reasons why, but dozens of business owners and executives lobbying the General Assembly before last month’s vote that an amendment would impair the ability of growing companies in emerging fields to attract workers from states with more liberalized gay rights laws.
They said it also would discourage companies from coming to North Carolina because of the perception North Carolina is unwelcome to gays and lesbians. More large corporations, including Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp., are offering benefits to partners in gay couples.
Perdue said legal experts also have argued the amendment could eliminate legal protections for all unmarried couples.
“Right now, my focus, the General Assembly’s focus, and North Carolina’s focus needs to be on creating jobs,” said Perdue, who hours before the statement participated in the grand opening of an expanded Caterpillar Inc. plant in Sanford that will lead to 325 more jobs.
Gay marriage opponents said most states at the top of economic performance tables have limits on marriage embossed in their constitutions. The amendment was written so it won’t harm job creation, said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the pro-amendment North Carolina Values Coalition, who criticized Perdue for choosing “to throw her support behind those who want to radically redefine marriage.”
Thirty states already have language in their constitutions limiting marriage to a man and woman. North Carolina is the only Southeastern state without one. Six states and the District of Columbia grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Perdue “cannot have it both ways- voting for marriage between one man and one woman in 1996 and stating that she still supports that- while now refusing to support the amendment that will keep it that way in 2011,” Fitzgerald said.
A leader for the gay right group Equality North Carolina, which opposes the amendment, praised Perdue for framing the issue as one that goes beyond same-sex marriage. Rights allowed under any domestic partnership could be stripped if the amendment is approved, interim executive director Alex Miller said.
“I appreciate that the governor … has pointed out the truth that (this) goes much beyond the current law that she voted for in 1996,” Miller said.
Perdue’s opposition to the amendment is still a challenging political wicket for her because society is largely divided on the question of formalizing gay relationships. Social conservatives, who tend to vote Republican, have been seeking a referendum for years. They didn’t get one until the GOP took over the Legislature for the first time in 140 years.
Perdue could make a difference in the outcome of the gay marriage amendment question if she campaigns actively against it, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University who studies amendment issues. But by putting out only a statement about her views, Perdue doesn’t appear to want to get too involved in the debate at this time, Dinan said.
“She could hold a press conference. She could have encouraged others to vote against the amendment,” Dinan said. Instead, “it’s not apparent at this point that she intends to be actively involved.”
For now, her statement may satisfy Democrats and gay activists who oppose the question without criticizing people who support it, Dinan said. Voter impressions are important as she runs for re-election in 2012.
Perdue had no formal way to block the amendment. Her veto stamp can’t be used on proposed constitutional changes.