Our first instinct, as opponents of North Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, is to challenge it any way possible and show the harm it inflicts. So we understand those who encourage the Charlotte City Council to offer same-sex benefits to its employees – even if it gets the city sued.
But council members made a smarter decision last night, voting 9-2 to get an opinion from the N.C. attorney general on the issue before including the benefits in the next fiscal year budget.
Most of us know the basics at hand: North Carolina’s same-sex amendment says that the only union the state recognizes is a marriage between a man and a woman. That jeopardizes benefits for same-sex partners – as well as heterosexual, unmarried domestic partners – offered by local governments and state universities. A UNC study published last November said there’s no iffyness about it - based on what courts in other states have ruled, same-sex benefits in Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Mecklenburg and Orange counties would become illegal when the amendment passed.
Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James already has asked the board to eliminate those benefits.
The problem facing the City Council: The AG’s office probably won’t get back to the city with an opinion by the time the council has to approve its budget in June. That would leave council members with a new question – do they plow ahead with the benefits and invite a lawsuit challenging their legality, or do they wait for a city or county already offering the benefits to have their inevitable day before a judge?
We think Charlotte should wait. The amendment’s language clearly makes same-sex benefits from governments illegal. Offering them might make a momentarily satisfying statement, but a lawsuit would surely follow, and that would result in a costly and losing defense. We’ve criticized N.C. Republicans in the past for their costly pursuit of mandates involving abortion visits that already had been struck down by a federal judge. Same principle applies here. Conscientious objection might be a fine tool for individuals, but governments shouldn’t be in the business of snubbing the law.
The best the City Council can do for now is ask the attorney general about alternatives. Amendment One author and House Majority Leader Paul Stam suggested that local governments can get around the amendment by allowing homosexual employees in partnerships to designate another person to receive benefits. It’s not an ideal solution – and it’s potentially more costly. But North Carolina’s voters have made their decision. The City Council should abide by it. Peter St. Onge