‘Game on’ in Tar Heel marriage fight

Anti-gay amendment introduced in Senate as advocates gear up for potential 2012 ballot campaign

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: March 5, 2011 in News

A participant at a November 2008 Proposition 8 rally at the Legislative Building’s Halifax Mall in Raleigh. Photo Credit: T.W. Buckner, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The introduction this year of an anti-gay amendment prohibiting the recognition of same-sex relationships was a foregone conclusion as far back as last fall’s election campaigns. The amendment has been introduced in the state Senate, spearheaded by Gaston County Sen. James Forrester (R), every year since 2004. When Republicans swept into legislative power in November, LGBT North Carolinians were faced with a stark and chilling reality: 2011 would be the year in which the anti-gay marriage threat finally reared its ugly head.

Forrester introduced his amendment on Feb. 22, nearly a month after the General Assembly returned to work. As of press time, a companion bill in the House had yet to be filed though it is expected (see goqnotes.com for the most up-to-date news).

If approved by the legislature, it could appear on the 2012 ballot — just two months after Democrats visit Charlotte for their national convention.

Forrester’s quest to write discrimination into the state constitution has gotten more severe with each passing year since he first proposed the measure. This year’s version, the same as last session’s, is the most extreme. It has far-reaching consequences for both opposite- and same-sex couples.

Consequences not hypothetical

Advocates say the text of the simply- but powerfully-worded amendment could strip both public and private employees of health insurance or other domestic partner benefits.

“Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State,” the text of the proposed amendment reads.

The possible consequences aren’t hypothetical. Some states, like Michigan, have already rolled back domestic partner benefits as a result of similar constitutional revisions. Domestic violence statutes that protect unmarried or cohabitating partners have also come under attack in states like Utah and Ohio.

Just days after the amendment’s introduction, statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina released a “Frequently Asked Questions” on the bill.

“The language proposed is the most extreme version of an anti-gay amendment,” the group wrote. “In addition to limiting marriage to opposite sex couples, as state statute already does, it would prohibit any other form of relationship recognition, such as civil union or domestic partnership. This kind of language has been used in other states to take away private benefits, such as health insurance for LGBT couples, unmarried opposite-sex couples, and their children. This is a not a hypothetical issue, but a very real one. These amendments have also been used to challenge other private contracts between couples.”

The group stresses that the amendment would “take away rights and responsibilities that are currently available to some couples.”

Building an opposition

Dan Gurley, chair of the Equality North Carolina Board of Directors, says reaching out to legislators will be key to stopping the amendment before it has a chance to reach voters.

“We need to be constantly reminding those Republicans who were elected to the General Assembly in the last election that this past campaign they ran was not one focused on social issues,” he says.

Voters want action on jobs, the economy and the state budget, Gurley insists.

That message is being heralded by Equality North Carolina’s executive director, Ian Palmquist, and professional lobbyist, Dean Plunkett, in their work each day at the legislature. In addition to their lobbying in Raleigh, Equality North Carolina plans to expand its grassroots organizing.

On Feb. 25, the group received a $10,000 grant from the Human Rights Campaign to aid in their efforts to defeat the amendment.

“We’ll be hiring in the next couple days a contract organizer solely focused on engaging voters in the districts of legislators we need to persuade,” Palmquist says. “There’s a ton of potential to scale that up and to have even more activity in those targeted areas of the state where we can have the most impact.”

The group also expects to begin some phone banking and polling, along with other more expensive projects, but the biggest investment will be in their organizing team.

“We need to mobilize as many people as possible,” Palmquist stresses.

Potential GOP allies, Democratic organizing

Advocates and keen legislative on-lookers know that it takes action — or, rather, the lack thereof — from just one of the state’s top two legislative leaders to stop proposed laws dead in their tracks. Gurley say it’s possible that either Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (Guilford, Rockingham) or House Speaker Thom Tillis (Mecklenburg) could step up to the plate. Both men have powerful positions. Both set agendas, recognize speakers, assign bills to committees and have general control over floor debate in their respective chambers.

“I think it is absolutely possible,” he says of the potential for either leader to block or at least ignore the proposed amendment. “Is it probable? I’d say that’s probably 50-50.”

Conversations with Republican legislators and staffers have been “constructive,” Gurley says. And, though he stops short of calling those discussions “positive,” he does say legislators have at least been “willing to engage and listen.”

Gurley thinks the Republican Party infrustructure will play a limited role in legislative lobbying. At the same time, however, he sees room for a more active presence from Democrats.

David Parker, the state Democratic Party’s new chair, has been outspoken on his opposition to an anti-gay amendment and has stressed the importance of LGBT-inclusion at county- and state-level party operations.

“It’s fairly consistent that with the Democrats, there is not support for the amendment,” Gurley says, “but there are a handful of Democratic legislators scattered across the state who have previously co-sponsored an amendment bill. It [the Democratic Party] could be useful in those areas, to have party leaders, other elected officials, grassroots activists and voters contact those legislators.”

‘Game on’ says blogger

News of the amendment’s introduction and the more-than-likely possibility that it will be heard in at least one chamber of the General Assembly this year prompted Durham-based blogger Pam Spaulding (PamsHouseBlend.com) to come out swinging.

“What I do know is that if the GOP wants to play hardball on this issue when we already have a state [Defense of Marriage Act]…I say go for it,” Spaulding wrote. “Game on. We will explore every co-sponsor over the next year. The taxpayers have a right to know: How many times have these lawmakers been married? Who’s breaking the sanctity of their marriage vows? Are there closet doors to be kicked open? Who’s carousing for same-sex encounters at rest stops? Who has their hand in the till?”

She added, “The voters of NC have a right to know, since these elected officials have decided that they have the right to enshrine bigotry into the state constitution on the basis of two consenting adults having any legal relationship approximating marriage, let alone civil marriage.”

Spaulding was at least partly inspired by Washington, D.C.-based blogger Bil Browning of Bilerico.com. Originally from Indiana, he initiated a similar call for his home state which is undergoing an anti-gay constitutional debate of their own.

Browning’s and Spaulding’s tactics are, without doubt, controversial. But they are tactics some activists have used for years. Blogger Michael Rogers, who also lives in Washington, D.C., has used “outing” to expose the hypocrisy of closeted, anti-gay politicians like former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and U.S. Reps. Ed Schrock (R-Va.), David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.), among others.

Gurley, a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party and former Republican National Committee staffer, was “outed” by Rogers in 2004, though he says he was open with his Republican National Committee collegues long before Rogers’ actions.

There are better ways to make change and ensure the defeat of the anti-gay amendment, Gurley says.

“Showing legislators that they have people in their districts who are affected by this legislation and showing them that public attitudes have changed and are changing is a much more effective strategy at stopping this kind of legislation,” he explains.

He also cautions against efforts to “dig up dirt.”

“We need to be cautious on when and how we move,” he says. “There are consequences and those can be public, it can be professional and it can be personal. I think we need to be very careful when we are playing with people’s lives even if we might not like what they are doing.”

A long road

Defeating the proposed amendment won’t be cheap or quick. It’s hearing in either the Senate or House is a near-guarantee, and the numbers don’t favor the LGBT community.

In North Carolina, a constitutional amendment must be approved by three-fifths of both houses of the legislature. Republicans have more than the required majority in the Senate (31 of 50 seats). In the House, they hold 68 of 120 seats, only four votes shy of the required 72. Anti-LGBT Democrats could make up that difference.

Gov. Bev Perdue has been relatively supportive of LGBT North Carolinians. As the session began, she told reporters she doesn’t think the state needs an amendment on marriage. Ultimately, her opposition isn’t practically helpful; she’ll have no veto authority if the legislature approves the amendment. When or if it does, it will require only a simple majority vote of the people to make it the law of the land.

Each of the sponsors of the amendment are all playing silent. Calls to Sens. Forrester and co-sponsors Jerry W. Tillman (R-Montgomery, Randolph) and Dan Soucek (R-Alexander, Ashe, Watauga, Wilkes) weren’t returned by press time. : :

more: Stay up-to-date on news of the amendment and other legislative matters at goqnotes.com/in/ncga.

[Ed. Note -- The original version of this article in print and online erroneously stated that the Michigan Supreme Court had overturned domestic violence statutes. This was inaccurate. We regret the error.]