CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just what a political fight needs – a
marquee “American Idol” veteran.
“This amendment just goes too far,” says Aiken.
The popular “Idol” runner-up, who is gay, is just one of the voices taking sides before the May 8 vote. The Coalition to Protect All NC Families, organizations dedicated to defeating Amendment One, features Aiken’s message that the step would harm the rights of children in families that “look different.”
Though same-sex marriage is already against the law in North Carolina, the state legislature – which switched from Democratic to Republican control in the 2010 elections – voted last September to put the measure on the May ballot. North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that has not amended its constitution to define “traditional” marriage, a fact that is a point of pride or shame, depending on which North Carolinian you ask.
It’s just one issue that has placed the state in the middle of a so-called “culture war,” with the Catholic Church leading the charge. That’s a denominational twist in the home base of evangelist Billy Graham, a region that has long been defined as a Protestant-dominated Bible belt. Sides that were once at odds have found common cause, with evangelical Christians and Catholic leaders on one side and progressive places of worship on the other.
Bishop Peter Jugis, leader of the diocese of Charlotte, told me in an e-mail: "There are definitely very serious clashes taking place in our society regarding very important moral and social issues. The Church wants to be involved in the discussion. We try to explain the reasons for what we believe, and the principles upon which we base our convictions regarding all these issues."
The bishop’s message is made clear on the front page of a recent issue of the Catholic News Herald, published by the diocese. (I did some editing for the paper several years ago.) “Catholic Identity Under Siege,” the headline reads, accompanied by an image of Christ crucified, marked with a red circle divided by a diagonal red slash. Mandated health insurance coverage of contraception and the marriage amendment are the battle lines drawn in the stories featured just below.
Jugis and Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge, working together through the church’s nonpartisan policy arm, Catholic Voice NC, will be leading efforts to approve the marriage amendment through meetings with priests, bulletin inserts going to all the parishes in the state, advertisements already appearing in the Herald, post cards and a letter read at Mass, according to David Hains, spokesman for Jugis and the diocese. “We have a pretty well-organized campaign to get the word out to Catholics.”
“When something is elevated and placed in the constitution, it can’t be changed by the state legislature or a judge, which is the situation of the marriage law as it currently exists,” he said. Traditionally churches don’t get involved in elections and never endorse a candidate, Hains said. But “this is not a person, it’s a thing; the bishop are advocating for traditional marriage.”
The marriage amendment, said Matt Comer, would be a step backward for North Carolina, a state that “throughout history has proven itself a little more progressive, a little more thoughtful in protecting the civil and human rights of its citizens,” despite setbacks. “It is still the South.” Comer, 26, the former editor of QNotes, a Carolinas LGBT publication, is communications and program director for Campus Pride, a national, Charlotte-based nonprofit that works with LGBT and all student leaders in making college and university campuses safer and more inclusive.
Though Comer is not involved in any official efforts to defeat Amendment One, he believes its passage would send the wrong message, that North Carolina is “not a state that values what you believe, who you are or who your friends are,” he said. “I hope that young entrepreneurs don’t decide that it’s easier to do business elsewhere.” He said you don’t have to support gay marriage to be against the amendment, a sentiment echoed in a video from former N.C. Senate hopeful Cal Cunningham and his wife, Elizabeth. “Writing discrimination into our state constitution is plain wrong,” Cunningham says.
Comer grew up in a strict family in Winston-Salem, N.C., who attended a Baptist church that left the Southern Baptist convention because it wasn’t conservative enough. He came out at 14 and endured rough times at home and school. He made peace with his mother after his parents divorced, and found a spiritual home in Winston-Salem’s Wake Forest Baptist Church, whose pastor is a lesbian; now he attends a progressive Baptist Church in Charlotte.
Comer sees connections between the current battles over coverage of birth control and recognition of same-sex unions. “Both are about the health and well-being of young people.”
On the issue of Catholic institutions covering birth control in their employee health plans, Jugis is “vehemently, vehemently opposed to the HHS regulations as they stand now, and President Obama’s so-called compromise” that shifts responsibility for the coverage to insurance companies, said Hains. It’s the view of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, though the Catholic Health Association and other church groups are more conciliatory.
William Thierfelder, the president of Belmont Abbey College, last week testified in Washington before a politicized congressional oversight committee that HHS health care requirements violate religious freedoms. The Catholic liberal arts college in Gaston County, N.C. – represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington – last year sued the Obama administration over the mandate.
Hains said the HHS regulations would hurt the social service work of the church. “We think that those hospitals and schools are an expression of our faith.” He said he would like the rules to allow even more exceptions. “There are lots of companies that are owned by Catholics and other individuals who simply believe that contraception and sterilizations and those kinds of things are just morally wrong,” he said. “Nobody should be forced to violate their conscience.” He added, “Individuals who have to purchase health insurance on their own shouldn’t have to pay a premium that underwrites contraception or other individuals who may choose to get it.”
It’s the issue of same-sex marriage, though, that in Charlotte recently became personal and public for the Catholic Church when St. Gabriel – my home parish –fired its music director since 2004 after he married his partner of 23 years in New York. Steav Bates-Congdon, 61, told his story to the Charlotte Observer, which resulted in a diocesan response that said his marriage was “a public act in contradiction to church teaching, and which violates the diocese’s employee and ethics policy,” or, as Hains told me, “If you’re driving the Budweiser beer truck you can’t wear a Coors hat.” He said the timing of the firing was not related to the May 8 vote or the January U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gives churches “a ministerial exception” in hiring and firing employees.
On Feb. 12, the day the story appeared, at a Mass where the gospel told of a healed leper and the sermon’s topic was “compassion,” the pastor, Father Frank O’Rourke, read a message calling it “a challenging time for all of us here at St. Gabriel,” and said he performs his duty “in communion with the teachings of the Church and in union with our bishop.”
On social issues, the views of many Catholics in the pews are more nuanced. Some I spoke with, though in agreement with the pastor’s actions, were also sympathetic to Bates-Congdon – who is Episcopalian — and several spoke lovingly of gay family members and friends.
A St. Gabriel choir member for 22 years, Patti Pekark said Bates-Congdon grew the music ministry from mediocre to one of the best. She can’t continue to be a choir member, “not at the present time,” she said. “The larger issue is if you’re going to apply this standard across the board to other staff,” to someone who is divorced and living with someone, for example. The church does need to speak from a moral point of view, she said, but pointed to the “pedophile priests, moved from place to place. It was swept under the rug. Steav didn’t do anything to harm anybody.”
Hains realizes that current news distracts from other views of the Catholic church – for instance, support of immigration reform or opposition to capital punishment. In North Carolina, the church supported the controversial Racial Justice Act that allows death row inmates challenges based on claims of racial bias in jury selection and sentencing.
But the North Carolina headlines merely reflect the national political stage, particularly as surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum puts his interpretation of his Catholic faith front and center.
In North Carolina, which Obama barely carried in 2008, both parties no doubt see opportunities and pitfalls in a social issues fight. Democrats have been preparing for more than a year for the 2012 convention, expected to bring 35,000 delegates, media and guests to Charlotte. In a conference call last week to formally announce Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's nomination as chair of the Democratic National Convention, he and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz faced more questions on policy than convention business. When quizzed on the party platform’s position on same-sex marriage, Villaraigosa said, “I do support marriage equality,” but added, it’s “not for me to dictate that” for others in the party.
This Saturday, only blocks from each other, Charlotte will host both the Human Rights Campaign North Carolina gala with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as keynote speaker and the GOP's 2012 Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner, featuring, among others, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, the likely Republican nominee for N.C. governor this year, and Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who, in response to the administration’s birth control compromise, asked, “Is government run health care more important than freedom?”
Expect more North Carolina skirmishes in a culture war that has 2012 electoral consequences.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follo