Voters in North Carolina will decide today whether to add a ban on gay marriage to the state's constitution. But the outcome may hinge on issues that have little to do with whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in the state, where such unions are illegal under state law.
Currently, 30 states ban gay marriage in their constitutions, but opponents of the North Carolina amendment say theirs goes further than most and would have unintended consequences because of vague wording. The amendment says that marriage between “one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
The ban would clearly apply to unmarried heterosexual couples as well as same-sex couples and would eliminate health insurance benefits that some domestic partners receive from municipal governments. Some legal experts believe the courts may approach the language more broadly because the phrase “domestic legal union” has never been interpreted by courts in North Carolina or any other state.
But a broad interpretation of this phrasing could throw into question a host of state statutes that currently protect victims of domestic violence and govern child custody and visitation, disposition of a deceased partner's remains, hospital visitation and decision-making in medical emergencies.
“It's represented that this is simply a reaffirmation of North Carolina state law, but this particular amendment does way, way more than that,” says Martin Eakes, chief executive officer of Self-Help and the Center for Responsible Lending. Eakes and other business leaders have been active in the debate because they believe the amendment would harm their ability to compete for talent, as Stateline has reported.
Eakes worries that the amendment may even prevent the courts from upholding the benefits he offers to his employees. “The intention was to prohibit civil unions and domestic partnership of both same sex and opposite sex couples, which is very extreme in my view in terms of its intrusion into business practices,” he says.
Proponents of the measure say that these arguments are a thinly veiled attempt to distract from the core issue, which is whether North Carolina should protect the traditional definition of marriage. The current ban on gay marriage in state law isn't sufficient, they say, because it could easily be reversed by a judge or legislators in the future.
In a new television ad funded by Vote for Marriage NC, Phil Berger, the District Attorney for Rockingham County reassures voters about the amendment's supposed “unintended consequences” on domestic violence cases. “This amendment will have no impact on domestic violence prosecutions,” he says. “The citizens of this state should not be deceived into thinking otherwise.”
Final poll numbers released Sunday by Public Policy Polling indicate that these questions have the potential to sway the race. The amendment is leading by a 55-39 margin, with a projected final “yes” percentage of 57-59 percent. This tracks closely with the percentage of voters who believe that gay marriage should be illegal (57 percent). However, 53 percent of voters in the state support either gay marriage or civil unions.
“The reason for the disconnect is even with just 24 hours until election day, only 46 percent of voters realize the proposal bans both gay marriage and civil unions,” the polling firm says. “Those informed voters oppose the amendment by a 61-37 margin, but there may not be enough time left to get the rest of the electorate up to speed.”