Tyranny of the Majority?

Equality NC gears up campaign against Amendment One

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: October 1, 2011 in Cover Stories

After nearly eight years of trying, anti-gay state Sen. James Forrester (R-Gaston) has finally succeeded in gaining legislative approval for his so-called Defense of Marriage amendment. It sparked protest statewide when it was first introduced in 2004 at the height of controversy surrounding a proposed anti-gay amendment to the federal constitution. Above: On May 5, 2004, former Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte Pastor Mick Hinson and partner Gene were among those speaking out against Forrester’s amendment. They attempted to file for a marriage license in Mecklenburg County and were denied. “There is not justice in the world regarding [same-sex] relationships — period,” Hinson said at the time. (File photo)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Voters will head to the polls on May 8, 2012, to vote on an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment that will ban marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. The measure, “Amendment One,” could also have dire consequences for scores of unmarried opposite-sex couples.

The legislation putting the amendment on the ballot was approved in less than 24 hours worth of consideration by members of the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill passed the House on Sept. 12 and gained the slimmest three-fifths majority it needed to pass the Senate on Sept. 13. Amendment One opponents have criticized Republican legislative leaders for the way in which they handled the bill. For one, they say leaders silenced opposition and pushed the amendment through the committee process without any public input from citizens or legal scholars.

“The second strategic mistake they made was that it was so hastily and sloppily written,” said Equality North Carolina Interim Executive Director Alex Miller. “They didn’t take the time to ensure what they were putting forward for inclusion in the constitution is what will actually be put in front of voters.”

The bill approved by the legislature would amend the state constitution by adding, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

Yet, the question voters will consider states simply, “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 this State.”

Miller said there are “real constitutional questions” regarding the wording of the amendment and the ballot question. The issue was raised at a debate on Sept. 21 at the University of North Carolina School of Law between House Majority Leader Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) and Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland).

“Neither of them nor the professors present who are constitutional scholars could answer the question,” Miller said, indicating he was not aware of any current legal challenge to the amendment’s wording.

At the center of debate is the amendment’s phrase, “domestic legal union.” Miller and several constitutional law scholars have said the phrase is too broad and vague.

“They passed an amendment that makes invalid any legal recognition for any relation besides a traditional man-woman marriage,” Miller said. “This bill will affect same-sex and opposite-sex couples, senior citizens and domestic violence victims.”

Advocates say Amendment One’s broad implications and consequences will mean extra support in the nearly eight-month-long campaign to defeat the measure at the polls.

Gearing up

Within days of the amendment’s legislative approval, citizens across the state took to Facebook and Twitter to organize against the ballot measure. Grassroots activists, too, began getting their hands wet. In Boiling Springs, N.C., friends began their “Neighbors for Equality” campaign and others are speaking out in their own, individual ways (see story, “Grassroots, start your engines!”).

As of press time, Equality North Carolina had yet to announce their formal campaign against Amendment One. But, Miller said planning was already underway and strategies being discussed and laid out.

“We’re now in the process of creating the campaign and it will happen over the next several weeks,” Miller said. “I can’t tell you when exactly, but I can say it is less important for us to have a campaign logo or slogan before we make sure we have a strong campaign strategy.”

Miller said the group’s pre-existing strategies had been structured for a ballot referendum in a general election. Legislators changed their plans and placed the amendment on May’s primary ballot, instead. Miller said the development will be encouraging for the campaign against Amendment One.

“We’ll need to implement a new strategy,” he said. “A primary is all about [voter] turnout, whereas a general election is about persuasion. It’s a different kind of campaign with different messaging and different organizing.”

While Equality North Carolina will head up the campaign organization, Miller said his group will be working closely with other organizations with a vested interest in defeating the amendment. He cited Arizona’s 2006 victory against their amendment, similar in scope to North Carolina’s Amendment One, as an example of broad, cross-sectional organizing.

“The only time this has been defeated was in Arizona in 2006 and the reason was because their amendment was so much broader than issues just about same-sex marriage. It had a broad impact and brought out opposition not only from LGBT allies, but also groups that aren’t traditional coalition partners.”

Equality North Carolina’s coalition-building will prove essential to success, Miller said. It’s an organizing tactic they’ve used and had in place since the beginning of the legislative session this year.

A growing network

Sam Parker, Equality North Carolina’s director of community organizing, structured a powerful, grassroots field organizing strategy as her group faced an uphill legislative campaign. She said the network built in the preceding three months will prove essential for future mobilization.

“We have indentified folks all across the state who want to volunteer with us,” she said, citing more than 12,000 people who amassed nearly 50,000 postcards sent to legislators in opposition to the amendment. “We have people now already invested in the process and they want to see it through to the end.”

Parker will continue in her field organizing role as the group ramps up its primary campaign.

“We’ll be asking folks to take a pledge to vote no in May,” she said. “We’ll be doing voter registration.”

In addition to Parker, Equality North Carolina employed nine regional grassroots organizers during the legislative phase of their campaign. Though the ballot campaign could restructure some of those positions, Parker said on-the-ground organizers will still play an integrated role.

“I’m orchestrating people on the ground who are going to be having these conversations with individuals across the state,” Parker said. “We are just in the beginning stages, but it will be an opportunity to engage folks who aren’t normally engaged because LGBT issues don’t necessarily affect them.”

Regardless of the May vote’s outcome, Parker and Miller believe Equality North Carolina’s campaign will build and strengthen the community.

“There’s always going to be another issue,” Parker said. “It’s really important to maintain relationships with volunteers and those already invested. We’ll need them to be invested on something else down the road.”

It is expected that both campaigns for and against Amendment One will draw on financial support from individuals and organizations across the country. Anti-LGBT lobbyist Tami Fitzgerald of the North Carolina Values Coalition has said previously that she anticipates needing only $500,000 to pass the amendment in May. But, past ballot initiatives in other states have seen millions of dollars invested by groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic and Mormon churches. The Family Research Council and its state affiliate, the North Carolina Family Policy Council, have already invested against the amendment. Fitzgerald is a former lobbyist for the groups.

Miller said Equality North Carolina will work with local and national coalition partners like Faith in America, PFLAG and the Human Rights Campaign. He said the coalition will be counting on the support and momentum it’s already achieved nationwide.

“Our fundraising will be coming from a lot of sources,” he said. “The grassroots fundraising is going be so important. Every $5, $10 or $100 contribution really adds up. We’ve got 40,000 Facebook fans, tens of thousands of supporters across the state; if everybody just gives $5, that can be put to great use in defeating the amendment.”

Equality North Carolina’s campaign has already attracted attention from national players. Hickory, N.C.-native Chris Hughes, an openly gay co-founder of Facebook, contributed $10,000 to the group’s legislative campaign.

“We hope to continue to rely on support from folks who can contribute large donations and national groups who can invest resources into the campaign,” Miller said.

While discussions of fundraising are important, Miller and Parker said the campaign is ultimately about what is right for North Carolina and its people.

“We have eight months to have these conversations knowing that we are on the right side of history,” Parker said. “It’s going to take all of us. We need everybody in on this effort. The more cooks in the kitchen, the better.”

She added, “At the end of the day, we are fighting for our livelihood. If we lean on one another and will be each other’s resource, we could win in May.” : :

more: Learn more about Equality North Carolina and how to get involved at equalitync.org.