Ironically, there was no need to amend the NC Constitution. Gay marriage has been outlawed in the state since 1996. However, the General Assembly’s GOP majority was fearful an “activist judge” might overturn the law in the future so they ramrodded a constitutional amendment. Of course judges are only “activists” when they rule against a favored position; otherwise they’re just doing their job.
With nearly 6.3 million registered voters in NC, it’s regrettable that something as important as amending our constitution was decided by just over 1.3 million “yes” votes or 21 percent of registered voters. Thirteen percent voted against the measure while the remaining 66 percent stayed home. Why something of this magnitude wasn’t put on the November ballot when a much greater percentage of voters would turn out for the presidential election is perplexing. Regardless of the outcome, when amending our constitution every effort should be made to maximize voter participation.
Proponents benefited from confusion over what the amendment actually does. A late April Public Policy Poll found that only 36 percent of voters knew it would ban both gay marriage and civil unions; 27 percent admitted they didn’t know what the amendment would do; and an incredible 10 percent actually thought it legalized same-sex marriage. When voters were informed that the proposed amendment would preclude both marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples only 38 percent continued to support it. A Gallup Poll released on May 8, Election Day, shows nation-wide support for same-sex marriage has skyrocketed from 27 percent in 1996 to 50 percent today. The same poll also shows 34 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of Independents and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage.
The Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy restricting gay service members from openly serving was repealed last September. Commenting on a coming Pentagon report on the repeal’s impact, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says things “are going very well,” and, “it’s not impacting on morale, on unit cohesion or on readiness.”
“Very frankly,” he added, “the military has moved beyond it.” That’s one reason it troubles me that NC, a military-friendly state and home to some of the nation’s largest military bases, has now codified discrimination into our constitution by denying gay service members and other same-sex couples the civil right to any legally recognized union.
The day following our state election, President Obama publicly expressed his support of marriage equality for same-sex couples. As Commander-in-Chief, he made a special reference to gay military personnel saying, "When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married." Hours later, in a straight party-line vote, the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee, still angered by the lifting of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, backed a measure banning same-sex couples from getting married on U.S. military installations.
Several states allow same-sex couples to marry, yet because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), prohibiting the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, an existing question is whether partners of same-sex military couples are entitled to the same benefits as heterosexual partners such as access to medical care, base housing and the right to shop at military commissaries and exchanges. A lawsuit on behalf of married same-sex military couples challenging DOMA is pending and earlier this year the Justice Department fortunately said it’s no longer defending DOMA.
During one of last September’s GOP presidential debates, the audience booed Stephen Hill, a gay army captain serving in the Iraqi war zone, who, via satellite T.V., asked candidate Rick Santorum if he would try and circumvent the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell if elected president. It was a travesty seeing Americans booing an actively serving soldier, but was made even more astonishing by the fact that not one of the GOP presidential hopefuls came to the captain’s defense. In my opinion, their silence indicates that none of them is qualified to be Commander-in-Chief.
The U.S. military has long been a force for social change. From the use of black troops by the Union in the Civil War to the desegregation of the military in 1948 to the integration of women into the ranks, the military has often been a pathfinder for rest of the country. So it will be with same-sex marriage. While supporters of Amendment One have won this particular local battle, the larger war is still being fought and attitudes supporting marriage equality in America are rapidly changing. Paraphrasing Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, those who oppose marriage equality are ultimately going to be on the wrong side of history.
Ken Lynn is a retired USAF colonel and an adjunct online instructor with the USAF Air University.