RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina voters will get to decide next May whether a ban on same-sex marriage needs to be written into the state constitution after the state Senate voted Tuesday to put the issue on the ballot.
After the 90-minute debate, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger issued this statement, "We look forward to eight months of healthy debate before voters decide this issue at the polls.”
The state House voted 75-42 Monday in favor of the measure. North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast without such a provision.
The debate began just after noon, and Democrats quickly spoke out against the move. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said, "Most of us have gay neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members. Know that if you vote for this amendment, you will cause them pain."
"Surely we are better than this," Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said. "We can treat each other with respect and not be down here in a special session trying to find somebody that we can tread on and try to make the people forget that they are all going broke."
Stein opened his comments by asking, "What are we doing here?" He noted the daily cost to taxpayers of the session and the need for aid in eastern counties still cleaning up from Hurricane Irene.
“With the state of our economy, we do not have the luxury to make anyone feel unwelcome. We need those jobs," Stein said.
Gov. Bev Perdue expressed disappointment Tuesday that the legislature is spending time on such an emotionally charged and divisive issue. Supporters of the ban and those against it rallied in Raleigh as the lawmakers met inside.
Republican Buck Newton made one of the most passionate pleas in support of the amendment.
"This is not about trying to distract from the economy," he said. "This is about an important social issue that we all need to face up to and that we need to allow the public to decide."
Newton said a constitutional amendment would protect North Carolina from judges outside the state who would define marriage differently.
"I wish that this did not have to be in the constitution in order to protect what we all know is a marriage," he said. "But we have reached that point."
He accused some of his Democratic colleagues of favoring same-sex marriage and looking to appeal the state law that bans it.
Berger concluded the discussion, saying, "There is one thing that I don't think anyone can disagree with. If we don't go ahead and address this issue now, it will continue to come up. It is time to let the people of this state decide."
Legislators on both sides of the debate mentioned the weight of history and the consideration of future generations in their comments. Many cited relationships with children or grandchildren as the reason for their stance.
State law already bans same-sex marriage, and opponents of a constitutional amendment contend that it is unnecessary. The Chapel Hill Town Council approved a resolution Monday night affirming that view.
Amendment supporters argue that putting it in the constitution would help the state against challenges from same-sex couples married in the six states that allow the unions.
Advocates on both sides launched their campaign messages as soon as the measure had passed.
"We're going to start organizing and preparing to fight this at the ballot," said Alex Miller of Equality NC. "I'm hopeful attitudes are changing to the point where the majority of the folks who are going to come out and vote in May will be opposed to this."
Sen. Jim Forrester, who proposed the amendment and has been waiting to see it put before the people was equally confident.
"I bet 65 percent of people will vote for the amendment of the constitution," he said.