RALEIGH, N.C. — Behind-the-scenes efforts are slowly gearing up for a referendum next May in which North Carolina voters will decide whether to engrave a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. Pro- and anti-amendment forces are assembling campaigns that will raise money and build support for their causes.
In an era of increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships in the U.S., well-funded national groups that view North Carolina as a flashpoint on the gay marriage issue are preparing to get out their checkbooks. At least one is already spending in a bid to sway the outcome May 8 in the only Southeastern state that doesn't limit marriage to a man and a woman in its constitution. The winning side may need millions of dollars.
"Money is what gives us the resources to win," said Jeremy Kennedy, of the newly formed Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, the referendum campaign committee opposed to the constitutional change. The salaries of two coalition employees already are being paid by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.
TV or radio ads and campaign mailers are expected to reach voters in the weeks leading up the referendum, although exactly how many will be seen and heard may depend on the polling or perceptions that the outcome is uncertain. Voter registration drives, debates on college campuses and pulpit sermons also are in the works.
"There's a massive organization going on, and we are extremely excited about having the opportunity to let our voice be heard," said the Rev. Patrick Wooden, pastor of Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, a predominantly black congregation that supports the amendment.
Thirty other states already have approved constitutional amendments designed to prevent same-sex marriage. North Carolina state law already limits marriage to a man and a woman, but amendment supporters persuaded enough General Assembly members in mid-September that voters should be allowed to decide. The new Republican-led majority at the Legislature agreed to consider the question after it was blocked for years when Democrats were in charge.
Amendment backers say they want to protect traditional marriage by making it harder for a legal challenge by same-sex couples from other states who want their marriages to be recognized. Opponents said expanding gay rights — not constricting them — is on the right side of history, pointing to six states and the District of Columbia were gay marriage is legalized.
It's too soon to determine whether the amounts spent on referendums in other states will be spent in North Carolina, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University. Often money pours in during the last month before such a referendum, he said.
"People are just trying to get a sense of will this be competitive," Dinan said.
The pro-amendment campaign is in the planning stages and expected to be unveiled in a week or so, said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition. Wooden said a positive message is being planned about the pre-eminence of traditional marriage in society.
The Washington-based Family Research Council also plans a statewide bus tour next spring in support of traditional marriage and other causes, said Tom McClusky, a council vice president. He adds the group's legislative arm will pay for radio ads next year supporting the referendum, as they did in September before the Legislature's vote.
Kennedy said the amendment debate will go beyond that just discrimination against people over their sexual orientation because the change would harm all unmarried couples.
The amendment would make marriage between a man and a woman the "only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state." It would bar local governments — there are currently eight in the state — from offering benefits to domestic partners of employees. Other legal experts argue it could invalidate domestic violence protections for married couples and affect child custody cases.
Kennedy said plans are still being worked out but the coalition will include gay rights groups, social and racial justice organizations, religious leaders and progressive businesses. The coalition will have field offices and seek support on campuses and in churches.
"We are really going to be a united coalition," he said. "This isn't just about gays and lesbians."
Other groups, including Hickory-area based Faith in America and the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality also are participating in opposition efforts to the amendment. Southern Equality held a two-week demonstration last month in which same-sex couples sought marriage licenses at the Buncombe County registered of deeds offices.
The pro-amendment effort got a boost this month when the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted for a resolution endorsing the amendment. The convention's new president, the Rev. Mark Harris, also pledged to work with the convention's 4,300 churches to get the amendment passed.
Both sides are seeking advocates with enthusiasm like that of Lydia Lavelle, a Carrboro town council member.
A North Carolina Central University law professor, Lavelle has participated in two legal forums on what she calls the amendment's broad consequences for domestic partners. She wants to distribute information to female attorneys and leaders in other municipalities about the amendment.
"Everyone has kind of unique abilities," said Lavelle, who registered with her longtime female partner in Carrboro this year. "Sometimes I have to rein myself in with all of the things that I can do."
Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families: http://www.protectncfamilies.org/
North Carolina Values Coalition: http://ncvalues.org/