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Understanding North Carolina's Proposed Amendment One

7:13 PM, Apr 18, 2012   |    comments
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What if the government told your boss he or she could not provide benefits to your spouse or even your children? You might have a problem with that. While it might sound unbelievable that the government would take away those benefits, some fear that could happen here in North Carolina.

We're talking about Amendment One. It's the amendment some call the "gay marriage amendment," but this amendment is about a whole lot more than marriage. It's also about benefits and economics.

Read: Local Universities Hold Panel Discussions About Amendment One

The first sentence of Amendment One says, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."

Here's the problem: it's unclear what "domestic legal union" actually means.

"They're trying to enact a relatively broad ban on any sort of gay marriage. But, they're doing it through a term that hasn't been construed through the courts," Elon Law University Professor Mike Rich said. "The legislature hasn't defined it for us. So, ultimately, if the amendment passes, there's going to have to be a lot of litigation over what exactly that term means." 

When you add words to our state constitution, it leads to lots of interpretation. So, if Amendment One passes, and it's vague, it opens the door to a lot of legal questions. For example: Will schools, police departments, cities, any publicly funded employer be required to deny benefits to any couple not legally married?

"Every time language like this has been interpreted by a court or by an attorney general, the conclusion has been that municipalities are forbidden from extending benefits to the domestic partners of their employees. There's every reason to expect that would happen also in North Carolina," Wake Forest University Law Professor Suzanne Reynolds said.

Thirty states have some kind of marriage amendment in place. Idaho and South Carolina are the only that have language as broad as what's proposed for our state.

In addition, there is a second part of Amendment One that will not appear on the ballot itself, but is part of the proposed law. It reads, "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."

Reynolds said, "The second sentence is written in a really ambiguous way. Proponents say the language of that second sentence protects private contracts. But, that's not exactly what the language of that second sentence says. So, no one can be sure."

Finally, there's the question of whether this is even legal at all under our federal government.

"It's my opinion that Amendment One would violate the Federal Constitution. Under the 14th Amendment, the United States Supreme Court said you cannot pick out a certain class of people and then pass legislation just to burden them," Reynolds said.

So, does voting for Amendment One mean any unmarried straight or gay couples will lose benefits? If it passes, that question will ultimately have to be answered by the courts.

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