CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James survived his own primary race on May 8. But it was the marquee fight over Amendment One that topped his agenda the following day.
It was predicted that the change to the state constitution, with its broad language proclaiming “marriage between one man and one woman … the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized,” would cause confusion. Did it cover civil unions and relationships between unmarried heterosexual couples, and would it affect domestic partnership benefits already adopted in Chapel Hill, Durham and other municipalities across the state?
After voters approved Amendment One, by 61 to 39 percent -- though without the support of Mecklenburg County, which includes the state’s largest city of Charlotte -- James, a Republican, sent an e-mail to the county attorney and county manager asking for clarification and action:
“Since Amendment One has passed when will we get a memo or something that outlines what changes we need to make to our health plan to be in compliance? I recall when the Democrats on the Commission forced the issue and added these benefits for homosexuals that a number of legal experts said it was illegal then – including the city attorney. Now that Amendment One has passed, it obviously is illegal to offer this benefit as there is now only one ‘domestic legal union’ recognized in the state.” James’s e-mail also said, "Prior to the vote, most scholars (left and right) said that Amendment One would eliminate local faux ‘marriage’ benefits for homosexual employees.”
County manager Harry Jones replied: “Our legal and human resources staffs are evaluating the Amendment, as well our policy, to determine what, if any, potential impact the Amendment will have on Mecklenburg County. As soon as we complete our evaluation we will brief the board at a future meeting on our findings, conclusions, and policy options available to you."
In December 2009, when commissioners approved domestic-partner benefits for county workers in same-sex relationships (starting in 2011), James was on the losing side of a 6 to 3 vote that fell along party lines, with Democrats for and Republicans against. He made news then for his remarks to Democratic commissioner Vilma Leake, who spoke with emotion of her son and his 1993 death from AIDS. James leaned over to her and said, "Your son was a homo, really?"
While the commission is waiting to determine its next steps, the Charlotte City Council this week delayed its own plan to offer benefits to same-sex partners, voting 9 to 2 to ask for an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General in light of the Amendment One vote. Despite the council’s caution, two Democrats, including LaWana Mayfield, the council’s first openly gay member, voted against asking for advice.
Before the May 8 vote, those on both sides of the issue argued over the impact amending the constitution would have on existing regulations and relationships in North Carolina, where same-sex marriage was already banned by law. Amendment supporters called the questions raised about the proposal’s “unintended consequences” scare tactics.
The other side’s view was reflected by attorney Russell Robinson – whose grandfather, state Supreme Court Justice William B. Rodman, was principal author of the 1868 North Carolina constitution – when he said the amendment was “very poorly worded” and “bound to invite litigation.”
What’s clear is that the vote, rather than settle anything, merely passed North Carolina’s newest constitutional amendment on to lawyers and judges to figure out.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @m