Same-sex marriage an issue in North Carolina elections? Maybe

Just when you thought there were plenty of contentious issues that put North Carolina’s Senate candidates at odds, same-sex marriage is added to the list. With a state constitution amendment – Amendment One — bolstering an existing law against it, there was little reason same-sex marriage would merit major consideration as North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican, battles Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. But a federal court case in neighboring Virginia, plus a host of lawsuits – including one with a religious twist well suited to the Bible belt – have put the issue in the headlines and on the table.

The two political opponents have made their positions clear. Tillis strongly supported an amendment to the North Carolina constitution, passed overwhelmingly by voters in May 2012, which says “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized.” However, before the vote, he predicted that if it passed, it would probably be repealed within 20 years because of changing public sentiment.

Seth Keel, center, is consoled by his boyfriend, Ian Chambers, left, and his mother Jill Hinton, during a concession speech at an Amendment One opposition party in Raleigh in 2012. (Travis Long - AP)
Seth Keel, center, is consoled by his boyfriend, Ian Chambers, left, and his mother Jill Hinton, during a concession speech at an Amendment One opposition party in Raleigh in 2012. (Travis Long – AP)

Hagan, who supports marriage equality, spoke earlier this year at the Human Rights Campaign 2014 North Carolina Gala, and told She the People then that “the government should not stand in the way of equality and justice,” although she added she “respects differences religious institutions have.”

Checkbook issues often win or lose races, and that promises to be the case in North Carolina. Early volleys between the two campaigns have mostly been questions about whether Tillis believes in the minimum wage and if Hagan’s “yes” vote on the Affordable Care Act will be the difference in a contest crucial to the battle over control of the U.S. Senate.

However, a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit could cross the border, since the 4th also covers the Carolinas, West Virginia and Maryland, which already allows same-sex marriage. This week, a three-judge panel in Richmond heard arguments on Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, and whether it violates the Constitution. The judges’ questions revealed a range of opinions, with one on each side and one uncertain. The ban – which a lower court struck down — also extends to recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. The issues may eventually end up at the Supreme Court, but the appeals court ruling could come in a few months.

In anticipation, several lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s ban will probably have to wait. In one filed April in federal court, the United Church of Christ, clergy members from different denominations and same-sex couples in the state are suing North Carolina over its constitutional ban, saying it violates the principle of “free exercise of religion.” Several large churches and the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte campaigned for the amendment and oppose the current lawsuits as going against Scripture. However, those bringing the suit say the ban prevents them from serving inclusive congregations.

While Amendment One passed by a more than 20 point margin – with the state’s major cities voting against it – a recent Public Policy Polling survey showed North Carolina support for same-sex marriage increasing: 40 percent said they think it should be legal with 53 percent who continue to think it should be illegal. The poll also noticed another trend: “Showing the direction things are headed in on the issue, 62 percent of young voters support it to only 33 percent who believe it should be illegal.” The results mirror increasing movement in that direction across the country.

This week in Washington, in answer to a question on the Virginia case and its implications for North Carolina by a reporter for the Washington Blade, which reports on LGBT issues, U.S. Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said he supported gay marriage. Although Foxx had said in 2012 that he would vote against the constitutional change and had supported domestic partner benefits, this week was the first time he had publically supported same-sex marriage.

The Washington Post reported that “back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that just about half of the U.S. gay population lives in a state that allows gay marriage.” That followed a federal judge’s decision allowing gay couples to marry in the red state of Idaho, with an appeals court putting the marriages on hold for now.

In last week’s North Carolina primary, “American Idol” singer Clay Aiken won the Democratic race for U.S. House in the state’s conservative 2nd district, where he will have an uphill fight in November against Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers. Although the contest came to an odd and sad end when his closest primary rival died suddenly, the race itself was about issues, as Aiken had predicted, and not about the fact that he’s gay.

Tillis has returned to Raleigh for a short session of the general assembly, where, starting this Monday, demonstrators plan to resume protests against conservative policies passed by the GOP super-majority. At past gatherings, LGBT activists have been among the diverse groups taking part in the rallies.

On the other side, the North Carolina Values Coalition sent out a warning about the Virginia case in a statement and donation appeal titled “the fight for marriage continues.” It said: “Eventually, we believe the issue of the validity of state Marriage Amendments and ultimately, the constitutionality of marriage between a man and a woman, will be determined by the United States Supreme Court.  However, while we are awaiting a final determination, the lower federal courts could wreak havoc on North Carolina’s marriage laws.”

With a push from the courts, the issue of same-sex marriage, which galvanizes enthusiastic base voters so prized in midterm elections, could become a factor – even in North Carolina — just in time for November.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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