By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. – The chatter over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in North Carolina rose Tuesday as thousands of conservative Christians rallied to urge the Legislature to vote on it now that its Republican leaders are open to the idea after Democrats blocked it for years.
State Capitol Police estimated about 3,500 people participated in the marriage amendment rally behind the Legislative Building and organized by the Forsyth County-based Return America group. Visitors carried placards, American and Christian flags and listened to local ministers and nationally known speakers in conservative Christian circles argue voters are restless and want to cast votes on the amendment.
North Carolina is the only Southeastern state that hasn’t approved an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Thirty states have voted to allow that restriction in their state constitutions.
“It’s time. It’s time, North Carolina, it’s time,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told a cheering crowd on the Halifax Mall. “It’s time to protect from those in Washington and those activist judges who are willing to aid those who want to redefine and ultimate destroy marriage.”
Earlier Tuesday, several ministers and a rabbi explained their opposition to the amendment in a separate news conference. They said passing the amendment would make gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people second-class citizens by siding with the religious views of what they call a minority and deny them the ability to love whom they choose.
“This extreme legislation will only cause needless pain and suffering,” said the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman of Clinton Tabernacle AME Zion Church in Hickory. “At a time when legislators should be chopping away at unemployment rates and searching for ways to build a budget that would befriend the poor and marginalized, legislators are choosing to advance this divisive social agenda.”
North Carolina state law already identifies a valid marriage as one “created by the consent of a male and female person.” However, supporters of the ban contend an amendment would better protect traditional marriage from court challenges by same-sex couples married legally in five states and the District of Columbia.
About a dozen lawmakers were introduced at the rally, including two key House Republicans who said the question would be heard in the Legislature in 2011.
“It will get done this year,” House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, told the crowd.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said later it was likely the amendment also would be considered in his chamber this year, either in the current session or in an extra session later that would examine proposed constitutional amendments.
Return America’s recent biennial rallies had fallen on the deaf ears of Democrats who led the General Assembly in one or both chambers for more than a century. They wouldn’t consider Republican-penned amendments and were allied with gay rights groups that argue an amendment would emboss discrimination permanently into state law.
That changed when the GOP won both chambers in the Legislature last fall. Three-fifths of the members in the House and Senate would have to approve the amendment in order for it to be on the November 2012 ballot, the date for a pair of bills that have been introduced. Some Democrats would be needed in the House to meet the three-fifths threshold. Some have co-sponsored previous measures.
A simply majority would be required in the statewide referendum.
The Senate version of the constitutional amendment also could deny same-sex partners other benefits such as visitation rights in hospitals and health insurance, according to Ian Palmquist of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina.
Amendment opponents could be helped by changing attitudes about homosexuality. Supporters point to surveys showing more than 70 percent like the amendment, but a 2009 Elon University Poll showed about half of North Carolina adults oppose one. And a February Elon poll showed more than half of North Carolina residents now support some form of legal recognition of same-sex couples.
The rally came three days after thousands of people attended the first “OutRaleigh” festival, which celebrated the area’s gay and lesbian community. Another North Carolina-based group called Faith in America is spending $30,000 for billboards and newspaper ads in Raleigh calling on an end to religious bigotry, and ultimately a gay marriage amendment.
“The theme behind the most of the (rally) speakers was pretty clear – not only is God OK with expressions of bigotry and prejudice toward gay and lesbian North Carolina, such hostility is a biblical mandate,” Faith in America chief executive Brent Childers said in a prepared statement. “We’re hopeful that the majority of North Carolinians reject such religion-based bigotry.”
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, the second openly gay lawmaker elected in North Carolina history, said he believes some churches can confuse the values of the Christian faith and Jesus.
“Jesus was a compassionate person, and he would not have a rally outside right now,” he said.
But rally participants who traveled to Raleigh said they believed they had the right answer to the well-known Christian motto and question, “What would Jesus do?”
“I think he would want us to stand up for what’s right,” said Cindy Sartain, 54, of Concord, who came to the rally with members of her Baptist church in Kannapolis.
Rich Wells, 44, of Garner, an engineer who took a vacation day to attend the rally, said he’s encouraged by the Legislature’s interest in the bill, but “ultimately we just pray and leave the results to God.”