In an election year that was supposed to be all about jobs and the economy, the issue that’s energized North Carolina’s sleepy May 8 primary has turned out to be a philosophical clash over what constitutes a marriage.
Indie rockers, preachers, county commissioners and business owners are all staking out positions on the constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, a question that will be put to voters when early balloting begins later this week.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent on lawn signs, billboards, organizing efforts and other costs, and hundreds of thousands more will be spent as May 8 draws nearer, in a vote that will determine whether North Carolina remains the last Southern state without an amendment that effectively bans gay marriage.
The referendum is partly about partisan politics: previous efforts in the General Assembly to put an amendment before voters was rebuffed when Democrats controlled the legislature, and won approval after Republicans took control of both chambers in 2010. Republicans’ traditional allies on social issues, especially conservative churches, have lined up to support the amendment, while Democrats’ support base, particularly the state NAACP, have been prominent opponents.
But the lines of demarcation have also been more blurry than in traditionally partisan fights. Among the opponents are Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, a tea party favorite; John Hood, head of the conservative John Locke Foundation; the state Libertarian Party; and Richard Vinroot, the former Republican mayor of Charlotte and onetime GOP gubernatorial nominee.
On the other side, amendment supporters are counting on black churchgoers, normally a bedrock Democratic constituency, to support the amendment, and they’ve been boosted by the public advocacy of prominent pastors like the Rev. Patrick Wooden of Raleigh’s Upper Room Church of God in Christ.
The pro-amendment side has also benefited from a surge of resolutions supporting the measure passed by a growing number of county commissions, from rural areas like Columbus County to booming urban centers like Wake County.
Amendment opponents have also racked up resolutions from cities like Asheville, Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh, but the number and geographic sweep of the resolutions has been surprising to some observers.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. “It’s probably not going to have a lot of impact, but it’s interesting to see that it’s become part of the overall campaign.”
More resolutions are likely to come, as in Gaston County, where the commission is scheduled to vote on a measure expressing support for the amendment on April 26.
“The resolution that I’m supporting in my mind has nothing to do with gay rights. It is not pro-gay, it is not anti-gay,” said Commissioner Tracy Philbeck, the measure’s chief sponsor. “The resolution is simply supporting the historical tradition of marriage between one man and one woman.”
Same-sex marriage is already illegal by statute in North Carolina. But supporters of the amendment contend that law could be overturned by a court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
“I don’t think government should be in anybody’s bedroom,” Philbeck said. “I don’t think the government should tell people what they can and can’t do. But I think it’s a vested interest for any society to protect its longstanding traditions.”
While resolutions from county commissions are certainly welcome for amendment backers, the core of its support comes from North Carolina’s conservative churches. Dozens of pastors and churches are listed as supporters on the website of Vote FOR Marriage NC, the principal pro-amendment group, and the amendment has also been endorsed by the Baptist State Convention, the largest religious body in North Carolina.
But just as other communities across the state are divided on the issue, not all Christians are amendment supporters. At Wedgewood Baptist Church in Charlotte, the Rev. Chris Ayers recently replaced the message on the sign in front with the slogan, “Vote Against Amendment One.”
“It looks like it’s going to basically come down to fundamentalist church get-out-the-vote efforts versus those of us who do not want to codify discrimination in our state constitution,” he said. “We’re finding conservative Republicans recognizing the amendment is an embarrassment, and I think that’s a good sign.”
The ability of both sides to get voters to the polls will be crucial, McLennan said, because what briefly looked like a possibly significant Republican presidential primary on May 8 lost much of its luster after Rick Santorum exited the race. Turnout at primaries is generally lower than at general elections, meaning the amendment question could be decided by a relatively small number of voters.
Regardless of the result, McLennan expects residents will quickly put the referendum behind them as North Carolina emerges as a key state in the presidential election.
“If Amendment One passes, I’m not sure more Democrats will come out just to vent their anger in November,” McLennan said. “If Amendment One goes down, I don’t think Republicans need any additional motivation to come out against President Obama. This is the kind of thing that we’ll focus on now, but by October we’ll have moved on.”
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