RALEIGH, NC -- North Carolina moved one step closer Monday to letting voters decide the definition of marriage when the House passed a constitutional amendment, 75-42, defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
The bill (S.B. 514) now goes to the Senate, and if passed there, would go before voters in 2012, potentially making North Carolina the 30th state nationwide -- and the last one in the Southeast -- to define marriage within a state constitution.
The amendment needs a three-fifths majority in each chamber, and in the House cleared that margin (75) by three votes.
North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that doesn't protect the natural, traditional definition of marriage in its constitution.
The heart of the amendment reads: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."
"People want to vote on the definition of marriage between a man and a woman," Rep. Dale R. Folwell, a Republican, said during floor debate. Statewide support for the amendment crosses political, generational and racial lines, he said.
The amendment received a boost when sponsors tweaked it to appease some representatives who were on the fence. In response to objections that the amendment was being put on the ballot solely to bring out conservative voters for the November 2012 presidential elections, sponsors changed the ballot date to the 2012 primary. And to answer opponents who said the amendment would prohibit companies from offering domestic partner benefits, sponsors added language clarifying that the amendment wouldn't impact a "private party."
For years, Democratic leaders in North Carolina blocked an amendment from receiving a floor vote, but Republicans took control of both chambers last year for the first time since 1898 and had pledged in the campaign to put the issue to a vote. If the marriage amendment makes it on the ballot, North Carolina would join Minnesota, which also will vote on an amendment in 2012.
Bill Brooks, president and executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, appeared at a rally Monday in support of the amendment.
"North Carolina needs a marriage amendment on the ballot so that people will have the opportunity to decide, once and for all, what the definition of marriage is going to be in the state and not leave it up to the courts or to the legislature to make that decision," Brooks told Baptist Press.
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.
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 would prevent state courts from forcing gay "marriage" recognition on the state, as has happened in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa.
Some opponents also said the amendment would harm the state's economy by scaring away businesses. Folwell countered by quoting data from a report, "Rich States, Poor States," put together by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
"Nine of the top 10 states for economic vitality have a marriage amendment and it hasn't slowed them down," Folwell said.
Traditionalists warn the legalization of "gay marriage" would have a widespread negative impact on society, affecting the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in public schools.