The main reason the people of North Carolina should vote yes for the proposed marriage amendment in that state has everything to do with preventing improper state court activism and nothing to do with unmarried couples, their benefits, or allowing domestic violence to go unpunished.
Here are some important facts voters need to know:
The main reason to approve the marriage amendment is to prevent state courts from improperly invalidating the state marriage law based on the state constitution.
Courts in nine states have invalidated their states’ marriage laws based on their state constitutions, with a 10th state waiting in the wings. Voters in Alaska, California, and Hawaii approved state constitutional amendments to overturn court decisions redefining marriage. The highest courts in Maryland, New York, and Washington overturned lower court decisions voiding their state marriage laws.
In addition, the state supreme courts of Connecticut, Iowa, and Massachusetts used their state constitutions to strike down their state marriage laws, and voters were unable to regain their authority to define marriage. The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently allowed a similar lawsuit to go forward challenging that state’s marriage law, demonstrating the need for Minnesota voters to approve a state constitutional amendment defining marriage this November.
Many unmarried couples are currently denied benefits under existing local domestic partner benefits programs in North Carolina.
Several cities and counties in North Carolina offer health insurance and other benefits to an employee and to some categories of unmarried “partners” while denying benefits to a broad range of unmarried relationships.
For example, a city employee in Durham who lives with and cares for his sick grandfather, or an employee caring for her adult brother with Down’s Syndrome, cannot receive “domestic partner” benefits from the city because they are “related by blood closer than permitted under the marriage laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside,” despite the fact that both couples are in a “committed relationship for mutual support and benefit,” as the ordinance requires. Passing or defeating North Carolina’s proposed marriage amendment won’t help those ineligible couples. In fact, even if North Carolina went so far as to redefine marriage, these unmarried couples would still be ineligible for a whole range of benefits and privileges.
There’s a better solution: local and state governments can decide to give benefits to a wide spectrum of people now ineligible for employee benefits by using a neutral definition of “dependent,” like “anyone the government employee can take as a dependent on his or her federal income tax.”
So, governments can certainly address the concern about benefit inequities for unmarried households, but they should do it comprehensively and not pretend that same-sex couples are the only ones with benefit problems, nor should they pretend that local “domestic partner” programs or redefining marriage resolves all problems of benefit ineligibility.
Local “domestic partner” policies treat unmarried couples better than married couples.
North Carolina law imposes on spouses and parents something it does not impose on any unmarried “partner”: a “duty to support.” State law requires parents (whether married or not) to provide financially for their minor children and requires spouses to support each other. Employers help their employees meet those legal obligations by, for example, allowing their dependents to join their health insurance plan. But unmarried “domestic partners” are under no state-imposed duty to support their unmarried partners because the counties and cities that create these programs have no authority to require such a thing.
Therefore, the “domestic partner” plans in Durham, Orange County, and elsewhere give the financial benefits of marriage to unmarried partners without imposing the duties of marriage. That means these local “domestic partner” ordinances treat unmarried couples better than married couples. If local governments want to give benefits to households under no legal duty to support others, they can do so with neutral criteria that apply to all unmarried households.
Women (and their children) are more vulnerable to domestic violence in unmarried relationships.
The distorted, fear-mongering claim that the marriage amendment will protect those who batter their unmarried partners from criminal prosecution is simply false and has been effectively refuted. This claim has not come true in any of the 30 states that have approved marriage amendments. Anyone who beats up another he lives with should be prosecuted criminally.
But there is a bigger issue here: multiple studies show that women in unmarried relationships and their children are more likely to suffer domestic violence than women married to the biological father of their children. We as a compassionate people need to warn our neighbors about living arrangements that expose them to physical harm. State authorities must prosecute batterers, but prevention is better. Approving the North Carolina marriage amendment would help promote this goal.
For all of these reasons and others, North Carolina voters should approve the marriage amendment on May 8.