Amendment One, Not Commandment One

I wrote this piece for The Scoop, a blog hosted by the University of Southern California.

Amendment One, Not Commandment One
Monday April 30th, 2012
by Anthony Hatcher

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

This is the wording of Amendment One, a proposed addition to the North Carolina Constitution. Citizens will vote for or against the amendment during the May 8 primary. Same-sex marriage was outlawed in the state in 1996, so why propose a constitutional amendment?

The short answer is politics. Both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly came under Republican control in 2010 for the first time in a century. GOP proponents feared a state court could strike down the existing law as unconstitutional, paving the way for gay marriage in the state.

Prominent backers of Amendment One include the Rev. Franklin Graham, who recorded an audio message for the pro-amendment group Vote For Marriage NCKevin Daniels, 32, is president of the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a conservative black Republican group that supports the marriage amendment.

A long roster of organizations opposing the amendment, including state chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, as well as gay rights groups, is listed on the website Protect All NC Families. On the surface, this appears to be just another battle in the Culture Wars between liberals and conservatives, the secular and the religious.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find some surprising voices in the opposition, including many conservatives and people of faith. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers recently made a speech at a Charlotte Country Club. “I believe that when you pass an amendment like that, you are sending a message to the world about what kind of community this is, not inclusive,” he said. “I’m old fashioned. I believe we’re all the children of God, and we shouldn’t have special rules for some and not for others.”

John Hood, who runs the conservative think tank The John Locke Foundation, believes marriage amendment supporters are misguided. “It seems to me that the real threat to marriage [is] straight people getting divorced or never getting married in the first place,” Hood told WUNC public radio.

A survey from Public Policy Polling shows support for the amendment softening. Fifty-four percent of likely voters support it in the PPP poll, down from 61 percent in November 2011. An Elon University poll conducted in early April found that 61 percent of all state residents oppose the amendment. And a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times noted that “a coalition of Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Unitarian-Universalist, Jewish and other spiritual leaders held a press conference to show solidarity in opposition to the amendment…”

In the Durham News, columnist Pierce Freelon quoted the Rev. Haywood Holderness, retired pastor of Durham’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. “Jesus and the prophets were loving, kind and inclusive, and I find this amendment to be mean-spirited and thoughtlessly constructed,” Holderness said. “A lot of folks say, ‘All the other Southeastern states have passed it’… So what? Do we have to be like South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia or Tennessee? We used to be considered something of a renegade state.”

“I hope North Carolina can continue to claim its renegade status,” Freelon writes. “Lucky for us, we’re in good company. Jesus was a renegade too.” A fascinating sentiment, and one that complicates the kind of coverage that often passes for reporting on the Culture Wars.

Anthony Hatcher, a former newspaper journalist, is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, NC. His research focuses on religion and popular culture. He teaches a course at Elon in religion and media.

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