RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)--After years of watching their neighbor states pass constitutional amendments protecting the natural definition of marriage, North Carolinians finally will get to vote on the issue in 2012.
The North Carolina Senate made sure of that Tuesday, passing a marriage amendment, 30-16, one day after the state House passed it, 75-42. It required a three-fifths majority in each chamber but will need only a simple majority when it's on the ballot during the primary election next year, possibly in May.
"It is time for us to let the people of this state decide what they want in their constitution as far as marriage is concerned," Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican, said during floor debate. "It may pass, it may fail. But it is time for them to make that decision about their constitution."
All four states that border North Carolina passed constitutional marriage amendments in 2004 or 2006, but leaders in the then-Democratic-controlled North Carolina legislature blocked an amendment from even coming to a floor vote. That changed last year when Republicans took over both chambers for the first time in more than 100 years. North Carolina also is the only state in the Southeast without a marriage amendment.
State polls and experience in other states, though, show the issue is far from a partisan issue and likely will get support from significant percentages in both parties. Marriage amendments have passed in Democratic-leaning states such as California, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin.
GOP leaders in North Carolina tried to de-politicize the issue by moving the vote from November 2012 to the 2012 primary, taking away the argument that the amendment's sole purpose was to bring out conservative voters during a presidential election.
A majority of states, 29, define marriage as between a man and a woman in their state constitutions. The amendments prevent state courts from redefining marriage to include gay couples, as has happened in Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts.
"It's the culmination of over 10 years of intensive work," Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, told Baptist Press. The organization supports the amendment and works with Christian organizations, including the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. "Every year that that legislation was put forward, the leaders in both chambers would not even allow it even to be heard. But when the leadership changed at the last election, we knew we had hope that we were finally going to get a hearing on it, and if we could get a hearing, that it would pass."
Still, it was "more of a fight than I anticipated," Creech said.
With 50 members in the Senate, the amendment passed by the bare minimum (30 votes) for a three-fifths majority. It needed 72 votes in the House and cleared that margin by only three votes.
Minnesota citizens will also vote on a marriage amendment next year, in November. In Maine, supporters of gay "marriage" are trying to collect signatures to redefine marriage, although the issue -- even if passes on the ballot -- would have to go before the legislature.
The heart of the North Carolina amendment reads: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." The amendment also would prohibit New Jersey-style civil unions that grant all the legal benefits of marriage, without the name.
Creech said moving the issue from November 2012 to the primary gained the amendment about 10 votes in the House where, during debate, opponents said the amendment was discriminatory and unnecessary.
"Our statutes already provide that the only recognized marriage in North Carolina is between a man and a woman," said Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat. "So why is a constitutional amendment needed?"
Supporters countered by saying the amendment -- unlike the current statute -- would prevent state courts from forcing marriage redefinition on the state.
The support of churches, Creech said, is critical to the amendment's success.
"There is absolutely nothing more important on this issue than for pastors to stand up and lead their churches to understand that this is a critical moment in our history," Creech said. "If we fail to protect marriage, we're talking about it significantly affecting the future of our children and our children's children. If traditional marriage fails, then over time the country itself will fail. Pastors need to stand up, speak up, preach about marriage and talk about how important it is for the church to stand up in his juncture in history to defend God's first institution of marriage."
Churches must address it "compassionately and lovingly," he said.
"I am confident that once the people of North Carolina are able to enter into the secret chamber of the voting booth -- where they are no longer afraid of being labeled a bigot or a homophobe or intolerant -- they're going to vote for traditional marriage," Creech said.
Although both sides are still planning their campaign strategy, amendment supporters could focus on two themes that have proven successful in other states: 1) children need a mother and a father and 2) legalizing gay "marriage" will have negative consequences on religious freedoms and impact what is taught in elementary schools.
Nationwide, the issue has proven popular at the ballot: Including the 29 states that have voted on marriage amendments and two other states (Hawaii and Maine) that have voted on the issue, voters have passed the proposals by an average margin of 67-33 percent.
"The big lie in politics is that the marriage fight is over," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which supports the North Carolina amendment. "But this vote proves once again the pundits are wrong, the people want the right to decide the future of marriage."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Learn more about the debate in North Carolina at www.ncfpc.org or christianactionleague.org.
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