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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 13:27

Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

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Next spring, voters in North Carolina will voice their opinions on gay marriage when a constitutional amendment banning the practice will appear on the spring primary ballot.

The question isn’t whether gay marriage should be allowed; it’s already outlawed in the state. But the amendment would entrench the legal ban on same-sex marriage, giving it a much more unassailable legal footing by putting it in the state constitution.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he voted to put the measure to the people as both a campaign promise and a personal commitment to what he called the traditional family, not as an anti-gay tactic.

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“That’s not my intention at all. I just think that traditional marriage has been under assault for the last 30 or 40 years in our government, and I think that it’s paramount that we reestablish that in our society,” said Davis. “I think that traditional marriage is the bedrock of our society.”

The amendment got on the ballot after a three-fifths majority vote in the North Carolina House and Senate two weeks ago. In both chambers, all voting Republicans voted yes to a ballot initiative, while all voting Democrats cast no ballots.

North Carolina is the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the outcome of this vote could signal which direction the state is headed in the future, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University.

“What the outcome is going to signify to a lot of people what kind of state North Carolina is,” said Cooper. “North Carolina has always kind-of enjoyed this reputation of being a progressive state in the South. I think that signifies something in the state, we’re kind-of a purple state — we go for Obama, we aren’t for gay marriage but we don’t have a constitutional amendment against it.”

And that progressive, half-and-half reputation is about to be challenged with the spring primary ballot.

It could have bigger political implications, too, for the November election next year. Davis said the reason the initiative is on the primary ballot rather than waiting for the general election in the fall was a concession to Democrats.

Cooper says putting the issue on the primary ballot could give much more right-leaning Republicans the wins in the primary, as voter turnout for such a religiously charged social issue is expected to skew towards a more staunchly conservative demographic.

As for the amendment’s chances at success, Cooper says they look pretty good.

“I think it’s going to have a lot of support,” said Cooper. “Nationally and in North Carolina, younger people are the ones who support gay marriage, and we know that younger people are the ones who don’t often turn out to vote.”

In fact, data collected between 1994 and 2009 by Columbia University graduate students shows that, across the country, approval of same-sex marriage responds inversely to age: the older you are, the less you approve of gay marriage, and vice versa. If a vote on the issue were put to only those Americans 65 and over, no state would allow it. In the most gay-marriage-friendly state, Massachusetts, only 35 percent of seniors endorsed it.

There are 39 states that favor same-sex marriage more than North Carolina, and of the 10 behind it, most are southern states.

What the amendment’s passage would mean for North Carolinians is as yet unclear. Opponents have spoken against it for a number of reasons, calling it anti-gay and a distraction.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was incensed that the General Assembly spent its time and money in the closing days of the legislative session on what he said is an unnecessary measure.

“North Carolina already has a law banning same sex marriage and has had it for 15 years. The law has not been challenged in the courts, but if it were, and a federal court ruled against it, the statute and/or constitutional amendment would be null and void,” said Rapp, in a legislative update. “We spent $150,000 to bring legislators to Raleigh for three days to vote on one constitutional amendment that was not reviewed by one of the House Judiciary Committees, is already a law but will cost even more money to put on the ballot in next May’s primary ballot.”

Before the chambers closed for the year, the issue was hotly debated on both the House and Senate floor, and in the eight months leading to the vote, things will likely get contentious in the public.

Davis said he’s already gotten a massive deluge of calls and emails from both sides of the debate.

In a June study assessing the legal implications of a constitutional amendment, UNC School of Law professors said it would throw into question the benefits and protections same-sex couples now enjoy under non-marriage partnerships such as civil unions.

The study said the dilemma lay in language that was “problematically vague.” An amendment would dictate that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

But that’s not what’s in the law now, and not what’s ever been there before.

The law professors found that might cause problems with health insurance, end-of-life issues such as wills, along with child custody and domestic violence protections for both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples alike.

Davis said this is not the intention.

“I think that they still have legal rights at their disposal to protect them and they can have a civil union,” he said. “It’s just not called marriage.”

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