Monday, August 15, 2011

Lobbying heats up in NC to sway votes on same-sex marriage

Verne Strickland Blogmaster / August 14, 2011

Festival-goer Ed Crabtree, left, talks with Equality N.C. volunteer Theresa Rosenburg, center, and staff member Matt Phillippi as they ask people to fill out postcards.

- Staff writer

DURHAM -- Matt Phillippi organized stacks of postcards in the Carolina Theatre lobby Sunday, ready for ticketholders at the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival to sign requests that legislators withhold their support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Phillippi, who works for Equality North Carolina, figured more than 500 postcards were signed in the festival's first three days. The Raleigh-based gay-rights group hopes to have 50,000 to deliver to legislators in September, when lawmakers return for a session to consider constitutional amendments, including a ban on gay marriage.

Full-fledged campaigns over the proposed constitutional ban are washing over the state. They include petitions, messages from pulpits, rallies, billboards and phone banks. 

Unlike traditional election campaigns, during which a relative handful aim their messages at the public, these campaigns are messages from the public aimed at 170 legislators.

Legislators for years have filed bills proposing to write the definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman into the state Constitution. Those bills never made it to votes of the full House or Senate when Democrats controlled the legislature.

With Republicans now in charge of the legislature, the amendment's backers see their greatest opportunity, and opponents face their biggest test.

Proposed constitutional amendments must be decided by voters. To get on a ballot, a proposed amendment needs three-fifths majorities of the House and Senate. About 30 other states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Constitutional changes were eventually approved in every state where they made it on to ballots.
North Carolina is one of 37 states with active laws defining marriage between a man and woman.

Ron Baity, president of the conservative Christian organization Return America, was a speaker at a pro-ban rally that drew thousands to Raleigh in May.Baity, a pastor frequently invited to speak at Baptist churches, says he preaches about supporting the constitutional ban. "It's a biblical issue," Baity said. "Our organization is pushing to say to our legislature, 'We want you to vote on it.' "

It was easy to find opposing views at the film festival, where many theatergoers were eager to sign Equality North Carolina's postcards.

The government should not put the rights of a minority up for a majority vote or use the state Constitution to discriminate, they said.

Ed Crabtree, 50, said the government should be about protecting rights, not limiting them.

"You can't have the tyranny of the majority impose their will on the people who need to be protected," the Durham resident said.

Joseph Sawyers of Raleigh said legislators have no good reason to debate the issue.

"Just because two guys want to be together or two girls want to be together, what effect does that have on me?" asked Sawyers, 31. "It doesn't bother me at all. It has nothing to do with me."

The proposal has triggered plenty of frenzied face-to-face professional lobbying and vote counting. The Rev. Mark Creech, the executive director of the Christian Action League, has spent days keeping tabs on potential amendment votes in the legislature.
Although Creech has asked supporters to send email to legislators on various issues over the years, he said a low-key approach - talking to individual legislators - is most productive at this phase of the effort to get the amendment passed.

Creech is taking a long view with a strategy aimed not only at making sure the amendment makes it on the ballot, but also making sure voters approve it.

"There's a lot of groundwork to be laid," he said. "Not only do you have to have all the votes that are needed, in the long run, you need to be in the best position so you can win North Carolina. Even though we have been working on this for many years, this is the first time we've had a real opportunity in front of us."