If you believe in polls then North Carolina voters are likely to pass a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages. But, opponents to such an amendment haven’t given up the fight yet and in fact cite other polls showing exact opposite outcomes.
A decision about whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages will be decided in the May 8 primary.
Fifty-eight percent of likely voters support such an amendment to the state constitution, according to a SurveyUSA poll released late last month. The poll was commissioned by WRAL News and interviewed 1,001 North Carolinians. It found that 36 percent of respondents opposed the law while 6 percent were undecided. Civitas, a conservative North Carolina-based group, says its polls consistently show that more than six out of 10 North Carolina voters say they support a constitutional amendment that establishes marriage between one man and woman as the only recognized domestic legal union in the state.
Those findings run counter, however, to numbers reported in a survey conducted by Elon University earlier this month, which found that 54 percent of North Carolinians opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
Coming into the homestretch voters can expect more polls attempting to gauge public sentiment, and also to see the issue come sharply into focus: should North Carolina, the lone Southern state without such a constitutional prohibition, join its neighbors in a mandated ban?
Who defines a union?
Supporters argue that passing an amendment is critical: that by embedding the language into the constitution, North Carolina would be able to successfully block future court decisions that might otherwise allow gays and lesbians to marry. And that’s indeed a needed protection, according to many conservatives who fear extending such legal rights outside the strictures of the traditional man and woman configuration.
“The large majority of North Carolinians believes and stands behind marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” said Bill Brooks of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a group working to pass the constitutional amendment. “The strategy is to put that in the constitution and put it out of reach of the courts — it’s a simple idea to a simple problem.”
But, things aren’t so simple. The amendment would also ban civil unions between same-sex couples and domestic partnerships between couples of the opposite sex in addition to same-sex marriages.
A poll by Public Policy Polling revealed, on the face of it, similar numbers to what the conservative groups are polling: the amendment would pass with 58 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed. But when people realized civil unions would be banned, that support plummeted to 41 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed, with the amendment narrowly being defeated.
“These trends evidence what we see on the ground,” said Liz MacNeil, WNC regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families. “Once North Carolinians understand the harms of Amendment One, including those in Western North Carolina, opposition grows by the day.”
North Carolina stands out in South
Ralph Slaughter, head of the Jackson County Republican Party, supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions.
“We are the only one of 15 states that does not have this amendment in its state constitution and we need to have it,” Slaughter said.
Missouri in 2004 became the first U.S. state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. This took place on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that its constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. Louisiana became the first Southern state to impose a constitutional ban, followed by Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and more. By 2008, all Southern states except North Carolina had such an amendment.
Slaughter said the N.C. Family Policy Council now has leaders in each county, including Jackson, and that the conservative churches are being encouraged to speak out on the issue.
“Though some of the churches have said it is just too political and won’t take signs” to put out supporting the amendment, Slaughter said.
Kirk Callahan, a conservative in Haywood County, said North Carolina voters are facing an array of issues on the May primary, a fact that could prove confusing to those heading to the polls: there are contested races for the 11th Congressional District, the N.C. House 118th District on the GOP side, plus statewide contested primaries for governor and lieutenant governor. Nationally, there is a GOP presidential primary.
“All of this presents a full plate for North Carolina voters,” Callahan wrote in an email. “Much evidence suggests that North Carolina is a center-right state, so I think it is safe to assume that voters are concerned about the subject of Amendment One. However, I would not be surprised if many people do not realize it will be on the primary ballot rather than on the General Election ballot. Furthermore, the fact that gay marriage would not be legal in the state even if the amendment fails may lessen some people’s concern.”
In the trenches
On the campaign trail, the issue hasn’t been front and center.
“Very seldom do I ever hear about it,” said former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who is challenging Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, for his old seat representing the 50th District. Davis said the same thing. Snow was a co-sponsor to an identical proposal banning same-sex marriages during his term in office.
Snow, a retired Superior Court judge, said he supports this Republican-generated amendment even thought state law currently bans such marriages anyway.
“There’s a larger statement to be made about it by making it a constitutional amendment,” Snow said, adding that then North Carolina would “speak definitely.”
Davis actually campaigned the first go-around when he defeated Snow on establishing just such an amendment.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, said while passing the amendment is obviously the decision of voters, a federal court decision to the contrary will trump the state constitution or state statute anyway.
“The supporters of this have invited so much attention to the issue I believe they will end up with a federal challenge,” Rapp said. “They may just come out on the short end of the stick because this almost ensures a federal challenge, and (the amendment if passed) could be thrown out.”
Mark Meadows, a Cashiers Republican who’s vying to represent the 11th Congressional District, for his part said he believes voters are truly galvanized by the issue.
“We’ve knocked on a little more than 9,000 doors, and we have talked about the amendment,” Meadows said. “Two-thirds of the people are strongly supporting it.”
Meadows noted that the results could be skewed some in that he’s targeting doors are Republicans, but the rough poll does include unaffiliated voters and some Democrats, he said.
Additionally, Meadows said, rallies on the issue have brought voters out in force. One recently held in Burke County resulted in 160 people showing up to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.
What the amendment will mean
The wording of the proposed amendment appears simple, but the devil is in the details.
It reads: vote “for” or “against” a “constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state.”
Backers portray the constitutional amendment as a method of blocking any federal court rulings that could pave the way for same-sex marriages in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, opponents say the amendment’s language goes far beyond that and would not only keep the existing ban on gay marriages but also eradicate existing and future legal domestic partnerships between gay and straight couples.
Opponents also say a constitutional amendment isn’t needed if the sole intention is to ban same-sex marriages. That’s because current North Carolina law, enacted in 1996, says that marriage between individuals of the same sex is not valid in North Carolina. This amendment, however, would make that concept part of the North Carolina Constitution.
There is one truly unbiased reviewer of the amendment’s impact, the state’s Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, which approved language for an official explanation of the proposed amendment earlier this year.
Here is the official explanation adopted by the commission: “If this amendment is passed by the voters, then under state law it can only be changed by another vote of the people.
The term “domestic legal union” used in the amendment is not defined in North Carolina law. There is debate among legal experts about how this proposed constitutional amendment may impact North Carolina law as it relates to unmarried couples of same or opposite sex and same sex couples legally married in another state, particularly in regard to employment-related benefits for domestic partners; domestic violence laws; child custody and visitation rights; and end-of-life arrangements. The courts will ultimately make those decisions.
The amendment also says that private parties may still enter into contracts creating rights enforceable against each other. This means that unmarried persons, businesses and other private parties may be able to enter into agreements establishing personal rights, responsibilities, or benefits as to each other. The courts will decide the extent to which such contracts can be enforced.”