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4 Worst Media Misrepresentations of North Carolina's Anti-Gay Amendment One

North Carolina's anti-same-sex-marriage Amendment One passed last week amid a lot of wild media speculation, especially about black voters. We set the record straight.

On Tuesday, May 8, just over  34 percent of North Carolina’s registered voters turned out to vote in the State’s primary election. They voted by a margin of 61 to 39 percent in favor of the controversial constitutional Amendment One. That Amendment states, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized."

The first Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly since 1896 voted on September 14, 2011 to put the Amendment up for a vote and require only a simple majority for it to pass. Two powerful state organizations, the conference of the NC-NAACP and Equality-NC, joined forces shortly after, and worked tirelessly to mobilize communities throughout the State to oppose the Amendment. Despite their efforts, it was no surprise that the Amendment passed, as constitutional amendments to restrict the rights of LGBT citizens had already passed in 30 other states. Both before and after the election, the controversy has been widely misrepresented in both State and national media. Here are four of the most important corrections to what you have heard.

1. The Amendment’s scope is far broader than a mere constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Headlines throughout the United States, from the Los Angeles Times to Politico, announced on May 8 that North Carolina had passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But the headlines misrepresent the meaning of the Amendment and fail to underscore any of its implications beyond marriage.

This happened by design. The two major groups supporting the Amendment in North Carolina, Vote for Marriage NC and NC 4 Marriage, insisted on referring to Amendment One as a “marriage amendment” from the beginning, and they lied to the public – and the media – about what the Amendment will actually do. For example, Vote for Marriage NC’s website focuses on ensuring that the definition of marriage in North Carolina be understood as “the union between one man and one woman.” In fact, marriage has long been defined this way in North Carolina, but North Carolina residents who are not skilled at legal interpretation – that is, most North Carolinians – were led to believe that we were merely voting “for” or “against” a ban on gay marriage. Unfortunately, much of the media accepted this characterization too uncritically, and never really explained the Amendment’s scope to the public.

First, gay marriage was already banned in North Carolina in two different legal documents. The first, NC General Statute § 51-1, states, “A valid and sufficient marriage is created by the consent of a male and female person who may lawfully marry, presently to take each as husband and wife…” A second statute, the North Carolina Defense of Marriage Act, came into effect in 1996. Section 3 of that legislation clarifies the legal definition of marriage in the state, reading, “[T]he word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

Amendment One goes a step further. It amends the Constitution to state, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized." By instantiating this statement in the State Constitution, Amendment One takes challenges to the law out of voters’ hands and places it with State – and possibly federal – courts. In other words, voters cannot simply move to repeal Amendment One.

But the Constitutional change is not the end of it. Tracy Hollister, a full-time community activist who has led discussions and seminars on the legal implications of Amendment One throughout the State, says that just three words, "domestic legal union," make this Amendment far more drastic than the previous statutes because they open the way for very broad interpretation. In other words, a domestic legal union can be defined far more broadly than legal marriage.

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