By Wade Rawlins
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Efforts to legalize gay marriage have met success in several U.S. states this year but could experience a setback on Tuesday if North Carolina voters decide to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in North Carolina. But the state has stood out as the only one in the Southeast that has not passed a constitutional amendment solidifying such a ban.
Supporters of the proposed amendment say it would preserve the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and make laws outlawing gay marriage harder to repeal. Opponents say a ban would jeopardize health insurance benefits for unmarried gay and heterosexual couples and signal that the state is unfriendly to a diverse workforce.
The primary ballot measure has attracted wide attention ahead of the Democratic National Convention planned for early September in Charlotte, North Carolina, a swing state in the November 6 presidential election.
President Barack Obama's campaign issued a statement saying he had long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny benefits to same-sex couples and opposed the amendment. Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee, is opposed to gay marriage.
Recent polling shows the proposed amendment stands a good chance of passing. In a survey of 982 likely primary voters, conducted from April 27 to 29 by the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling firm, 55 percent of those questioned supported the amendment banning same-sex marriage while 41 percent opposed it. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
"North Carolina is still a conservative, church-going state," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic political consultant. "Particularly among older voters, there is discomfort with gay marriage. I'm not optimistic."
Twenty-eight states have voter-approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The most recent states to put ballot amendments before voters were California, Arizona and Florida, which passed same-sex marriage bans in November 2008. California's restriction was later ruled invalid by a federal court.
Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian nuptials. Maryland, New Jersey and Washington state passed laws this year approving same-sex marriage. Governor Chris Christie vetoed New Jersey's law.
In North Carolina, Democrats controlled at least one chamber of the state legislature for decades and sidetracked efforts by supporters of gay marriage bans to put the issue before voters.
After Republicans took power in January 2011, the legislature voted to put the proposed amendment on the primary ballot. The language provides that marriage between a man and a woman is the only legally recognized domestic union.
PROMINENT FIGURES WEIGH IN
Vote For Marriage NC, which has raised $1.1 million to help pass the amendment and has the backing of several prominent religious groups, has released newspaper ads featuring the Reverend Billy Graham.
The prominent Christian evangelist, who lives in the North Carolina mountains, is urging voters to support the measure.
"At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage," Graham said in a statement. "The Bible is clear - God's definition of marriage is between a man and a woman."
But some Christian clergy have expressed opposition, saying the amendment favors one definition of marriage at the expense of all others.
The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families has raised $2.2 million aimed at defeating the amendment, and the state's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has run ads likening the ballot measure to a civil rights issue.
"We should never seek to codify or vote discrimination into the very heart and framework of our Constitution," said the Reverend William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
Critics of the amendment say its wording prohibiting "domestic legal unions" could prevent courts from enforcing private agreements between unmarried couples and invalidate their domestic violence protections - an assertion that some law enforcement officials have dismissed.
Courts would likely have to decide the reach of the amendment.
The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce has remained silent on the issue. But executives at two of the largest companies headquartered in the state, Bank of America and Duke Energy, have spoken out strongly against the measure.
Cathy Bessant, global technology and operations executive at Bank of America, said the best way for North Carolina to compete for new business was to be progressive and forward-looking.
In an open letter to state lawmakers, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recalled feeling unwelcome as a young gay man growing up in North Carolina and said the proposed amendment created a bad national image for the state.
"Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are the future of our global economy," Hughes said in the letter. "But the proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment signals to these and other major employers as well as their mobile, educated employees that North Carolina does not welcome the diverse workforce that any state needs to compete."
With the Republican presidential nomination all but decided and a contested Democratic gubernatorial race on the ballot, the makeup of voters in Tuesday's primary election is likely to have an effect on the amendment's fate.
As of Wednesday, registered Democrats had cast 46 percent of the early votes, compared to 33 percent cast by registered Republicans and 20 percent by unaffiliated voters. Early voting was running near the record levels of the 2008 primary, said Gary Bartlett, director of the State Board of Elections.
Nationally, opposition to gay marriage has waned in the last decade and the public is now about evenly split, according to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center. The survey showed 47 percent of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry while 43 percent are opposed.
Attitudes are shifting with the generational change, Pearce said. Whether or not North Carolina voters pass the amendment on Tuesday, the political consultant predicted, "In a couple of generations, they'll look back and say, ‘What was all that about?'"
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Mohammad Zargham)