Mecklenburg commissioner Bill James wants to know if the county is violating North Carolina law by offering domestic partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships. The answer to that question might result in those benefits being lost, which might explain why James seems to be one of few county officials who wants to know. He is right to ask, however whatever his motivation might be. James, who has railed against homosexuality regularly as a commissioner, questioned the countys same-sex benefits policy in May, soon after N.C. voters passed Amendment One, which made marriage between a man and a woman the only domestic legal union. In August, county manager Harry Jones directed deputy county attorney Tyrone Wade to gather information on the constitutional amendments implications.
Wade made his report to commissioners in a closed session this week, James and commissioners chair Harold Cogdell told the editorial board. Wade said there were no good answers regarding the legality of same sex benefits. Commissioners, he said, had three options: change the policy, which has been in effect since 2009, rescind the policy or do nothing.
James wondered if there might be a fourth option: Ask County Attorney Marvin Bethune for his full legal opinion. Commissioners can do so by putting such a request on the board meeting agenda, which takes three votes, then approving it. Cogdell, as county chair, can put the item on the agenda by himself, and Bethune also can offer his opinion at the request of County Manager Harry Jones.
Bethune told the editorial board Thursday that he hasnt been asked for his legal opinion by Jones or the board, which hasnt put the question on the agenda of the next board meeting. Cogdell said he wont do it himself for what he calls a political matter.
We dont doubt that James may be pushing the issue more because of his views on homosexuality than his desire to follow the letter of the law. But regardless of whether leaders like or dislike Amendment One, its the law, and cities and counties have an obligation to determine if their policies are in compliance.
Thats what Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann has done. Earlier this year, Hagemann smartly requested a legal opinion on same-sex benefits from the N.C. attorney generals office before the city begins offering those benefits next January. Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, told the editorial board that lawyers are still working on an answer.
Experts are split on the legality of the benefits, but agree that the courts will likely decide. Were sure of this: It would be an injustice for gays to lose benefits because their union doesnt fit someone elses definition of marriage. We, along with Amendment Ones many opponents, warned that this kind of governmental discrimination might be a byproduct of passing the amendment.
Cogdell said the board might revisit the topic if the attorney generals office tells Charlotte its benefits policy is illegal. Bethune guesses the issue will land on his desk eventually. Theres no reason for that not to happen now. Officials can avoid potential lawsuits by protecting the county with knowledge, even if its something they dont want to know.