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Gay marriage amendment on May ballot

RALEIGH — North Carolina voters will get to decide next May on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage after the Legislature gave final approval to the question today, despite protests that the question promoted intolerance and discrimination.
The state Senate voted 30-16 in favor of putting the question on the statewide primary ballot — the minimum number of yes votes needed to meet the three-fifths majority for such amendments. The House approved the measure Monday with a few votes to spare.
Rowan County’s delegation — Sen. Andrew Brock and Reps. Harry Warren and Fred Steen — all co-sponsored versions of the marriage amendment, but the one passed by the House and Senate was a third, separate bill.
Warren said he’s glad it passed and that state residents will get the chance to vote on the amendment.
“We were not voting on new law, and we were not voting to mandate what constitutes marriage,” he said. “This bill was about whether the General Assembly will give the people of North Carolina the opportunity to vote on what they want to constitute marriage.”
The amendment will be placed on the ballot for the May primary rather than the November general election, a change Warren said was part of a “process of compromise” in the effort to pass the measure.
Warren said he didn’t think the measure would ban civil unions, because of language added that allows “a private party to enter into a contract with another private party.” But the bill says marriage between a man and a woman would be the only “domestic legal union” recognized in the state.
North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast without a gay marriage prohibition in its constitution. State law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Still, amendment supporters argue that traditional marriage would be better protected against potential legal challenges by same-sex couples in six other states and the District of Columbia.
Thirty states have a gay marriage ban in their constitutions.
Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, who had filed amendment bills for several years without success, finally won Tuesday after an hour of intense debate on the Senate floor. The amendment, which had been blocked for years by Democrats, won a hearing after Republicans took control of the General Assembly for the first time since 1870. Republicans voted heavily for the measure.
“If people reject it and say, ‘no, we don’t want this in the constitution,’ then I’ll live with it,” Forrester said, adding he would campaign at the state’s churches for its passage. He said the bill wasn’t designed to single out gays and lesbians.
“This wasn’t a slap in the face at them,” he added. “It was just something I thought we needed to do to continue to have a strong family structure here in North Carolina.”
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Opponents said the question will hurt the state’s business climate because of the perception that gays and lesbians aren’t welcome. They likened the amendment to previous constitutional provisions in North Carolina that banned interracial marriage and sought to discourage the desegregation of the public schools.
“How will the votes we cast today be seen through the lens of time? How will history remember this day?” said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.
Unlike the House, where 10 Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the amendment, the Senate vote was utterly along party lines. Four senators — Republican Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County and Democrats Eric Mansfield of Cumberland County, Michael Walters of Robeson County and Stan White of Dare County — had excused absences and didn’t vote.
Constitutional proposals aren’t signed into law or vetoed by a governor, but that didn’t stop Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue from criticizing the amendment as a “partisan exercise” that neither solves problems nor creates jobs.
“Same-sex marriage is already illegal in North Carolina, and this constitutional amendment would not create a single job,” Perdue said in a statement.
Debate in the Senate began while several hundred opponents rallied behind the Legislative Building under tight security. One of the protesters, Coleman Billingsley, 65, of Raleigh, said the proposal tries to hold back a changing world that is becoming more accepting as more gays and lesbians live openly.
“It’s not an issue, this is our lives. To the people who want to pass this law, they want to take away our rights to be. They want to take away our insurance coverage, they want to take away our children, they want to take away our couples,” said Maddy Goss, 35, of Raleigh, who is transgendered. “It’s just wrong.”
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Earlier Tuesday, several business executives and a nonprofit leader warned passage would move jobs to other states and discourage companies that offer benefits to partners of same-sex couples from expanding here. They said several large North Carolina-based companies, including Bank of America, Duke Energy and BB&T, have policies that support same-sex couples.
Amendment opponents couldn’t persuade enough lawmakers to stop the question despite a flurry of activity and publications in recent days — statements signed by 250 clergy and faith leaders and at least 75 business leaders and nearly 50,000 signed postcards from people who didn’t want the amendment.
“I’m disappointed in all the legislators who turned a deaf ear” to them, said Alex Miller, interim executive director of Equality North Carolina.
The impending eight-month campaign on the up-or-down vote next May 8 will harm young people who are questioning their sexuality and must see advertisements opposed to gay relationships, said Mitchell Gold, co-founder of an Alexander County furniture manufacturer and who is gay. He’s also a leader in the gay rights group Faith in America.
“This is a state of progress, but this amendment is really a black eye,” Gold said at a news conference. “It is sickening that they would put kids’ lives on the line for their political ambitions (and) their deeply held religious beliefs that are misguided, ill-informed and outdated.”
Bill Brooks with the North Carolina Family Policy Council said he hoped the upcoming statewide debate would be cordial and questioned accusations that young people would be harmed because they don’t plan to talk much about homosexuality.
“We’re going to talk about (traditional) marriage and the positive things that it does,” Brooks said.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he looked forward to eight months of healthy debate on the issue.
“There is no doubt that this is a contentious issue,”, but “it’s time for us to let the people of this state what they want in this constitution as far as marriage is concerned.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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