Gay marriage could become battleground issue for November

A day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, President Barack Obama said he supports gay marriage.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he supports gay marriage.

Obama took his stance in a television interview, becoming the first president to take that position.

“I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.

His likely Republican opponent in November, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage, and legislators in North Carolina are predicting that the issue will be a contentious one in the run-up to November.

"(Democratic candidates) will be doing the two-step from here to November discussing both sides of the marriage amendment issue," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam. 

Republican State Senator Andrew Brock agreed, saying the amendment created awareness about marriage that will continue to resonate with voters.

"I think it brought a lot of people out to the polls," he said. "People were becoming informed about who they were voting for, and I think that's a good thing."

House Minority Whip Deborah Ross, however, cautioned that voters could see negative effects of the marriage amendment's passing before November.

"If you are going to use this as your trump card strategy, certainly beware," she said. "We may see some buyers' remorse on this amendment."

Still, Obama's announcement boosted the spirits of many amendment opponents, who said they plan to lobby Congress to legalize same-sex marriage across the country.

"Our task yesterday and our task today is the same," said Jimmy Creech, a former Methodist minister who campaigned against the amendment. "We will pursue marriage equality to the full extent we can through the court system until it's been accomplished."

Not much is expected to change immediately in North Carolina because state law already banned gay marriage. The amendment voters passed by about 61 percent of voters effectively will seal the door on same-sex marriages and potentially have other effects farther down the road.

"Same-sex marriage was illegal today; it's illegal tomorrow," said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University who writes an annual review of state constitutional amendments. "There were no same-sex civil unions recognized in North Carolina today. Those will not be recognized tomorrow. The bottom line is there's not a lot of change because of this amendment."

That didn't stop six same-sex couples from making a statement Wednesday by heading to the Wilson County Register of Deeds Office and requesting marriage licenses. The effort marked the start of a week-long campaign called "We Do" protesting their inability to wed.

"I'm afraid we're going to have to deny it because North Carolina does not recognize same-gender individuals as being valid," Register of Deeds Audrey Neal said. "Maybe one day it will be (legal), but right now at the present, the law does not allow us to do it."

The group then marched to a nearby church to pray.

"I think that change is on the horizon, and yet at the same time, this is 2012. This is the moment we're in, and we can't afford to wait," said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.

The amendment likely will affect issues other than gay marriage the most because the "marriage-plus" amendment approved in North Carolina prohibits not only same-sex marriage, but also same-sex civil unions. Nineteen states have such amendments, Dinan said.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James asked county staff Wednesday morning about stripping health coverage from domestic partners of gay county employees, which he termed "faux marriage benefits."

"Now that Amendment One has passed, it obviously is illegal to offer this benefit, as there is now only one ‘domestic legal union’ recognized in the state," James wrote in an email to other commissioners and county leaders.

Officials in Durham and Orange counties said they have no plans to eliminate benefits for employees in same-sex relationships.

Dinan said Michigan's highest court ruled that state's amendment did affect such benefits.

Opponents had said they feared the law could affect domestic violence protections, some of which refer to people who live together. Dinan said he doubted that would happen, although Ohio had a three-year court fight over the issue before the Supreme Court ruled the laws weren't affected.

Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, held a news conference Wednesday morning to lambaste the amendment and its backers.

"The voting majority has chosen discrimination and fear and inequality over the vision of our forefathers – that all are created equal," Petty said. "The state of North Carolina, in passing Amendment One (Tuesday), has failed this generation and future generations of North Carolinians and caused undue harm to our children, single mothers and parents, heterosexual domestic partners and, yes, the (gay) community."

Other voters who opposed the amendment said they weren't that concerned with the practical effects of the amendment but more with how it makes North Carolina look.

The amendment was unnecessary, said Sam Stone, 70, of Raleigh, who voted against it, along with his wife, Virginia, 66.

"Doing this amendment makes it seem more mean-spirited," Stone said Tuesday as he went to the polls.

Shane Colwell, who's studying at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, said the amendment clarified the definition of marriage.

"I'm a born-again Christian, and I just believe the Bible is clear that marriage is for one man and one woman," Colwell said. "It doesn't mean that anybody's less equal than anybody else. I just think that marriage is one man and one woman."

In the final days before the vote, members of President Barack Obama's cabinet expressed support for gay marriage, and former President Bill Clinton recorded phone messages urging voters to oppose the amendment.

Supporters of the amendment responded with marches, television ads and speeches. The Rev. Billy Graham, 93, was featured in full-page newspaper ads backing the amendment.

Obama was disappointed that the amendment passed, said Cameron French, spokesman for the president's campaign in North Carolina.

"The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples," French said. "He believes the North Carolina measure singles out and discriminates against committed gay and lesbian couples, which is why he did not support it."

North Carolina is the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Six states – all in the Northeast, except Iowa – and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. In addition, two other states have laws that are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.

Both sides said the hard-fought battle had brought new voters who will be active in other issues.

"I think we've built a huge coalition across North Carolina of people who believe godly values," said Tami Fitzgerald, head of the pro-amendment group, Vote FOR Marriage NC. "I believe that speaks well for people in our state who have somewhat been a silent majority in the past, and I think you can expect them to be very active in the future, especially when they see the impact of their grassroots efforts."

Susan Myers, one of the people who sought a marriage license in Wilson, said she was proud "that the 40 percent stood up" to oppose the amendment.

Amendment supporters said they're also proud that the voice of North Carolina voters was heard.

"We are not surprised by the actions of some of the extremists who want to push their agenda on the people. but, we're really excited about the people who stood firm for traditional marriage and biblical marriage," said Rev, Donnie Price of Rosebud Baptist Church in Wilson.

The campaign manager for the group that opposed the amendment said the nation watched North Carolina on Tuesday night, wondering how the anti-forces came through.

"I am happy to say that we are stronger for it; we are better for it; our voices are louder now," said Jeremy Kennedy of Protect All NC Families. "We have courage like we never had before, and we have strength to continue on. We said all along in this campaign that when we wake up on the day after Election Day that we want to be able to say that we left no stone unturned, that we left nothing on the table."

House Speaker Thom Tillis, who supported the amendment, said recently that he expects it to be reversed within 20 years as today's young adults age.

While legislators can easily undo a state law, it's much harder to reverse a constitutional amendment, Dinan said. The latter requires a three-fifths vote in both legislative houses, then voter approval.

"One can't rule that out," he said, "but it's become more difficult to make that change now."

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr agreed that it's unlikely the amendment will be reversed as quickly as Tillis predicted.

"I really don't think there will be that much litigation involving this amendment," said Orr, who voted against it. "When you have a contemporary amendment versus 1868, you know exactly what the framers and adopters said what this amendment attempted to achieve."

Still, amendment foes said they remain optimistic that someday the people of North Carolina will vote again on the issue of gay marriage.

"The road to full equality is long and treacherous, but it will eventually lead us to where we want to go," said Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality North Carolina.


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