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N. Carolina Lawmakers Considering New Marriage Amendment

by Gary D. Robertson
Sunday Sep 11, 2011

RALEIGH, N.C. - A new version of a constitutional amendment proposed by Republicans to ban gay marriage in North Carolina tries to shield companies that want to offer benefits to same-sex couples, but opponents of the marriage prohibition were angry about the timing of the new proposal and said Saturday it raises more questions.

A Senate judiciary committee is scheduled Monday to consider the updated proposal, which would recognize marriage between one man and one woman as the state's only valid domestic legal union. But the proposal, released Saturday by a senator's office, also says the amendment would not prevent private parties from entering contracts, nor courts from ruling in those cases - a likely reference to same-sex benefits.

Some business leaders and gay rights activists have argued that earlier versions of the amendment could prevent corporations from offering health and life insurance and other benefits to employees in domestic partnerships.

The constitutional amendment would have to be approved by the House and Senate and then by voters in 2012.

House Republican leaders pushing hard for the amendment said they didn't believe earlier proposals would bar corporations from entering agreements with employees on such issues. However, Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said this past week he was working to ensure its language wouldn't put North Carolina companies at a competitive disadvantage.

Judiciary committee chairman Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, said in an interview the new language is intended to show "what this amendment is about is same-sex marriage ... the specific things that have motivated the sponsors. It's not about private contractual relationships from private companies to private individuals."

Holning Lau, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, said the language would preserve the ability of private companies to offer same-sex benefits. But Lau, who co-authored a paper examining legal ramifications of a marriage amendment, said the revised amendment would still hamper the ability of private employers in North Carolina to attract and retain workers in creative fields who "prefer to work and live in places that embrace diversity and are inclusive of gays and lesbians."

Also, Lau wrote in an email, the "new language still threatens local governments' domestic partner benefits and registries, statewide domestic violence protections and possibly child custody and visitation laws."

Thirty states have approved constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. Six states - most recently New York - have sanctioned such unions, whether through a Legislature or the courts. State law in North Carolina already defines marriage as between one man and one woman, but social conservatives in and outside the General Assembly said imprinting the limit in the constitution would protect the idea better from legal challenges.

Gay rights activists were angry, saying legislators gave no formal notice that the altered amendment proposal would be heard by the committee Monday afternoon.

Instead, the Senate's calendar said the judiciary committee would debate another proposed amendment bill to limit service by House speaker and Senate leaders. The contents of the gay marriage amendment will now be placed in that bill. It's an unusual but not unprecedented parliamentary move.

Alex Miller, interim executive director of Equality North Carolina, which opposes the amendment, wrote in an email that for sponsors of the amendment to "try and bypass public input and scrutiny of the untested language they mean to add to that document is wildly irresponsible at best and criminally deceitful at worst."

Jim Blaine, chief of staff for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said opponents of the amendment were being disingenuous.

"They're trying to claim like they didn't know this was coming," Blaine said.

But he said it's been known for weeks that the amendment would be considered in a session that could end by Wednesday, and that Republicans have wanted a gay marriage ban to be voted upon for years.

Senate rules don't require committees to alert members that substitute legislation is being heard until the midnight before the next day's meeting, he said. Brunstetter's office released an updated committee announcement Saturday afternoon explaining the gay marriage amendment would be considered Monday.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said Saturday that Republicans are wasting taxpayer money by returning to Raleigh essentially for a gay marriage amendment.

"North Carolinians struggling through this recession want to see the General Assembly work on creating jobs," Stein said in a statement. "Instead, Republicans choose to focus on writing divisive social issues into our constitution - an effort that will hurt business recruitment."

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