Conservatives Hoping For Gay Marraige Ban

RALEIGH - The economy dominated the fall campaign, but leaders among North Carolina's social conservatives believe the Republican sweep at the Legislature should finally permit a vote on a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that hasn't approved an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Democratic leadership in the Legislature have refused to consider GOP-penned bills on the issue for several years, and gay rights organizations have offered strong opposition to what it called imprinting discrimination permanently into state law.

Now with Republicans solidly in the majority in the General Assembly starting this January for the first time in more than a century, chances for a vote in the House and Senate are fairly strong, GOP lawmakers said.

Until now, legislative leaders "have just turned a deaf ear," said the Rev. Ron Baity, senior pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. He's helped lead rallies of thousands of Christian conservatives in Raleigh asking lawmakers to vote on a marriage amendment. "This election should send a signal to our elected officials that maybe they should stop and listen to the voices of the people and allow the people of North Carolina to vote up or down on the issue."

Gay rights advocates plan to fight hard against bringing the question to the floors of the House and Senate, where three-fifths majorities are needed to approve an amendment to bring it to voters in a statewide referendum. Republicans will have that in the 50-seat Senate but likely fall four seats short in the 120-member House. Some Democratic lawmakers have co-sponsored marriage ban amendments in the past.

"We are definitely concerned that the new leadership is far more likely to bring up a vote," said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina. "People are definitely looking to North Carolina because we have been so successful at blocking an amendment in the past."

The Republican surge on Election Day nationwide also could bring constitutional amendments banning gay marriage to the forefront in Pennsylvania and Indiana, where Republicans scored Statehouse victories, according to Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign.

In New Mexico, GOP Gov.-elect Susana Martinez opposes gay marriage and domestic partnerships. And in New Hampshire, one of the five states that issues same-sex marriage licenses, Republicans now have enough votes in both chambers to override Democratic Gov. John Lynch's vetoes. Lynch signed a gay marriage law last year.

"With the new Republican majorities, it's going to be a whole different ball game," Warbelow said, adding that it would be a mistake for GOP leaders to believe they were swept into power on anything other than getting the economy turned around.

But Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, an amendment supporter, said many Republican voters want action on social issues after seeing Democrats push through laws last year such as anti-school bullying law designed in part to protect gay and lesbian students and a school sex education law that teaches more about contraception.

"If you look at the last two years when the Democrats and the liberals here have pushed their ultraliberal social agenda in Raleigh, that's what really pushed the grass roots to fight back here and helped us win a majority," Burr said.

In North Carolina, a marriage amendment bill was co-sponsored by 66 House members in 2009, but current Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, essentially derailed it by requiring it go through four committees. Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, repeatedly said an amendment wasn't needed because state law already identifies a valid marriage as one "created by the consent of a male and female person." Both won't be in charge in 2011.

Current House Minority Leader Paul Stam said a ban needs to be embossed into the constitution, as it's been done in 29 other states, to protect the statute from legal challenges as same-sex couples married in other states move to North Carolina. While a 2009 Elon University Poll showed about half of North Carolina adults oppose an amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriage, supporters point to surveys showing more than 70 percent like the amendment.

The Legislature "needs to let the people of North Carolina vote on it," said Stam, R-Wake, a candidate for House speaker.

Democrat Marcus Brandon, who won a House seat in Guilford County last week and is the second openly gay lawmaker elected in North Carolina history, said the tea party Republicans who talk of protecting personal liberties is incongruent with efforts to restrict marriage.

"I would like them to know that I don't want the government in my life, just like they don't want the government in theirs," Brandon said Thursday.

Since some conservative Democrats who supported the amendment idea were defeated last week, its passage could depend upon the viewpoints of newly elected Republicans and veteran moderate GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus. He declined Wednesday to say specifically how he feels about an amendment.

"I think we need to focus on jobs and the economy," Hartsell said. "That is consistent with the message that we campaigned on."

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