RALEIGH, N.C. — Several Democratic lawmakers and black clergy took opposing viewpoints Tuesday on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in North Carolina, a sign the proposed ballot question still divides racial, partisan and religious groups days before the General Assembly meets to consider it.
State law already bans marriage between people of the same gender, but the proposed amendment would make heterosexual marriage the only "domestic legal union" that could be recognized. If approved by lawmakers, it could be on the 2012 ballot.
Democratic opponents said the idea could hurt North Carolina's ability to attract business. More companies are offering benefits to their employees' same-sex partners, but the amendment could outlaw that, they noted.
"Instead of creating an environment where we can create employment, attract entrepreneurs (and) attract talent, we're going to try to put a sign up to say, 'You are not welcome if you want to contribute to our society,'" said Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham.
Key members of the House Democratic Caucus brought along executives of North Carolina businesses for a news conference at the Legislative Building to speak against the amendment.
"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 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?" Spainhour said.
Democratic lawmakers said the measure also could overturn domestic violence protections for unmarried heterosexual couples and could even keep same-sex parents from being able to enroll their children in school.
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.
Republican lawmakers say the issue is a moral one, not a political one.
Several black pastors said they don't believe same-sex marriage is a civil right. They say a constitutional amendment is needed to protect traditional 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.
"A bad judge can nullify North Carolina's state statute," he said to cite his reasons for supporting the amendment. "No. 2, homosexuals cannot consummate their marriage, and (No. 3), it is offensive to equate an obsession with immoral, unnatural sexual behaviors with being black."
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, 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 mess," Barber said in a statement released by the gay rights group Equality North Carolina.
To put it on the amendment 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 said he wasn't confident he knew the outcome of any vote.
"We are optimistic, but the issue is not settled," said Hackney, D-Orange.
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.
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 this summer married her same-sex partner.