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Year after N.C. amendment, couples celebrate

In 2012, a landslide of North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

A year later, thousands of state residents on the losing side of that vote were celebrating two Supreme Court decisions that struck decisive blows for same-sex rights.

One of the court’s 5-4 decisions gutted the federal Defense of Marriage Act. While it has immediate effects for states where same-sex marriage is legal, its impact on North Carolina and 29 other states where gay unions are not recognized remains to be seen.

Still, that decision, along with a second court ruling that undercut California’s ban on same-sex marriage, were cheered by supporters of gay rights in Charlotte and North Carolina as a clear victory, with potential implications that range far beyond the merely symbolic.

Several legal and public policy experts say the high court’s wording in the DOMA case opens the door for expansion of same-sex rights in North Carolina, even laying the groundwork for a challenge to the state’s new marriage amendment.

“The arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice. The days of injustice for gay and lesbian citizens are numbered,” area ministers Jay Leach, Amy Brooks and Robin Tanner said in a prepared statement. “In the coming days, there will be court analyses and responses from all sides. But on this day, let those who stand on the side of the universal struggle for justice and love simply rejoice. Today will be a joyful day.”

Not all Carolinians celebrated.

“I will continue praying for our nation,” said Dr. Philip Davis of Nations Ford Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that is predominantly African-American. Last year, Davis preached for passage of the marriage amendment.

David Hains, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, called the decision “tragic for those who see the common sense and God’s design in a marriage between one man and one woman.”

However, he said, “For the time being, the only valid form of marriage in North Carolina is between a man and a woman.”

Jim DeMint, the former U.S. senator from South Carolina who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation, sounded a similar note.

“The court didn’t redefine marriage for the nation,” he said. “We will work to restore clear marriage policy at the national level and get our laws defended at every level. … Our national debate about marriage will continue.”

Wednesday evening, that debate played out uptown at The Square on Trade and Tryon streets. While about 60 people celebrated the court’s decision, preacher Randy Baxter stood less than 10 feet away, reading aloud from the book of Romans.

“We have a ways to go before we sleep. Today they see us out of the closet and in the streets,” said Lacey Williams, the only speaker at the 45-minute gay rights rally, which featured drums and party horns. “Don’t be ashamed. We will win.”

Baxter shouted to be heard, deriding those who “practice evil ways.”

“God wants normalcy,” he said.

Legal challenges ahead

Legal experts said the key questions for many gay North Carolinians went unanswered by the Supreme Court. For example, do gay couples who were married in states where their unions are legal qualify for federal benefits while living here?

Teresa Davis of Charlotte, an attorney who works for the federal government, has been in a same-sex relationship for 15 years. She’s not convinced that Wednesday’s ruling will lead to better benefits for her partner as long as they live here. Meanwhile, she says, the couple pay about $1,000 a month in insurance and taxes “that straight couples in North Carolina don’t pay.”

John Dinan, a constitutional and public policy expert at Wake Forest University, said the ruling, particularly on the issues of Social Security and federal tax benefits, “clearly opens up a number of questions that will certainly be resolved by future litigation.”

One of those areas could be the state’s marriage amendment, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and passed by more than 60 percent.

Luke Largess, a Charlotte attorney who specializes in civil rights cases, said the wording of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision amounts to a potential “powder keg” to the amendment and other laws restricting gay rights.

He believes that the court’s opinion could mean that states face a higher level of court scrutiny, which would force them to prove that their laws do not discriminate.

As for the marriage amendment, he said, “You will see some sort of challenge fairly soon. There’s not a rational basis for this in society anymore.”

Holning Lau, a UNC Chapel Hill law professor and president of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the court’s ruling “clearly strengthens the case for gay rights.”

Specifically, wording by Justice Anthony Kennedy “affirms the dignity of gay and lesbian relationships.” That language could influence courts in future cases, Lau said, “and should inform discussions about gay rights and Amendment One going forward.”

For now, many of the issues facing gay couples in the Carolinas – from inheritances to child custody – remain unaddressed.

“If I were in a same-sex marriage, … there’s no reason to react to this ruling with anything less than joy,” said Jim Benedict, PNC Bank’s wealth manager for Western Carolina. “But I think it’s possible to overstate the implications if you live in a state that does not recognize (the union).

“The question that same-sex couples need to ask is this: ‘Does this solve all our problems as far as estate planning?’ The answer is ‘No.’ ”

Opposing views

In many ways, reactions to the court decision reopened the lines from the state’s divisive marriage amendment campaign last year.

At Concord Mills, Bayne Sakaduski, 60, said the ruling allows gays more leeway “in shoving their way of life down my throat.”

“We live in a free country. We have the freedom to think the way we want,” she said. “But there are laws we have to abide by. And the biggest is the Ten Commandments.”

Alex Speller, 24, felt otherwise.

“As long as you’re not harming me, you live your life, and I’ll live mine. … I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Last year, Steav Bates-Congdon traveled to New York to marry his longtime partner. When he posted wedding photos on his Facebook page, he was fired from his job as music director for St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte.

He believes it will take North Carolina three to four years to recognize his marriage.

“There are people out there who feel they lost, and I’m not going to feel badly for them,” he said. “I think it’s a very psychological defeat. They are coming face to face with the fact that the Constitution won today.”

Wednesday’s court announcement also carried special importance for Tanner, pastor of Piedmont Unitarian-Universalist Church in north Charlotte.

As a lesbian and public opponent of the marriage amendment, she was picketed at her home by conservative religious groups.

In May, she married Ann Marie Alderman, also a UU minister, in a North Carolina ceremony.

Now, with the court’s decision, the couple may repeat their vows in Washington in hopes of qualifying for federal benefits.

“We are staying in North Carolina. This is our home and why we were married here,” she said. “Like all marriages, ours was an act of faith and love. Our marriage was unique only in the baffling inequality in the face of what we saw as a tide of justice coming in.

“Today, we saw the beginning of that tide.” Staff writer Sara Ellis contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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