Black leaders reject marriage amendment

by Jordan Green

Some black Democrats have kept quiet about an amendment on the primary ballot that would change North Carolina’s constitution to say only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized, stuck in an awkward spot between constituents’ conservative social values and a political initiative advanced by Republican rivals.

Others are speaking out against the proposed amendment, charging that it is a ploy to divide the Democratic base and hurt President Obama’s chances for reelection.

“Folks, it is a wedge issue that was put in place to divide our community, to divide our churches, to create another Ohio 2004 situation that has resulted in a divided African- American community that resulted in George W. Bush getting four more years in office,” Ed Hanes Jr., a candidate for NC House District 72, told Democratic voters at Shiloh Baptist Church in Winston-Salem on March 31. “It’s an amendment put in place to ensure that we stay not focused on what our ultimate goal needs to be, and that is ensuring that our president, Barack Hussein Obama, is reelected this year.”

Among three African-Americans running in the Democratic-leaning District 72, Hanes touts himself as a coalition candidate. The district’s voter registration is almost equally split between black and white voters, with Hispanics making up the balance. Opposition to the marriage amendment could play well with white liberal voters who live in Buena Vista and the Wake Forest University area.

The Rev. Paul Lowe, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, echoed Hanes’ sentiments, taking the privilege of speaking out at the end of the forum before giving a closing prayer.

“I believe personally that this is a device that is being used to divide us,” Lowe said. “And certainly we as Democrats do not need to be divided on this particular amendment. It’s already illegal for couples of the same sex to get married in North Carolina at this time. Let’s do not put this on our plate at this time. Let’s deal with the issues at hand. We’re concerned about seniors. We’re concerned about children. We’re concerned about all Americans being treated fairly.”

Lowe’s stance as a clergyman against the marriage amendment is nothing new. The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, the lead group opposing the amendment, has a “Faith Against Amendment One” group. The group’s website features pastors, black and white, speaking out against the ballot initiative. The coalition states in a legal advisory that as a ballot initiative, nonprofits, clergy and congregations are legally allowed to publicly denounce the marriage amendment and organize to defeat it without fear of jeopardizing their tax-exempt statuses. In contrast, churches and nonprofits are prohibited from advocating for or against candidates for office.

A 2007 IRS news release that was reviewed as recently as last October states that churches and other nonprofits may “engage in advocating for or against issues and, to a limited extent, ballot initiatives or other legislative activities.”

Hanes and Lowe’s charge, that the marriage amendment is part of an effort to divide black voters and defeat Obama, gained credence with the disclosure last week of an internal memo drafted in 2009 by the National Organization for Marriage. The memo, which surfaced as part of the discovery process in a Maine lawsuit, outlines a strategy for raising $20 million to be spent on traditional marriage ballot initiatives in 2010 in tandem with an effort to unseat Obama in 2012.

“The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies,” the memo states. “We aim to find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage, to develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; and to provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the poverty.”

The memo identifies North Carolina, along with Pennsylvania and Indiana, as “top priorities,” and urges that Obama be exposed as a “social radical” by developing “side issues to weaken pro-gay marriage political leaders and parties.” It proposes raising “such issues as pornography, protection of children, and the need to oppose all efforts to weaken religious liberty at the federal level.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a prepared statement last week that the group is proud of a “strong record on minority partnerships.”

The state NAACP has publicly opposed the marriage amendment, describing it as part of “a well-funded national strategy by the extreme right to promote constitutional amendments,” and its president, William J. Barber, will speak at a rally against the amendment at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro on April 16.

Earline Parmon, who currently represents NC House District 72 and is running for NC Senate District 32, said at Shiloh Baptist Church that she had been “targeted by Republican dollars” for her unwillingness to sign on as a cosponsor of legislation to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. Republican lawmakers also courted Rep. Larry Womble, who represents District 71.

“They spent approximately $100,000 in this country trying to influence me to vote… for the proposition of Amendment One,” Parmon said. “In the middle of the night, they called me and Rep. Womble into a meeting to proposition us. When I refused their offer I became their target. And that’s okay. I’m a big girl. And I can stand up to that.”

Parmon explained later that during the time the Republican leadership in Raleigh was trying to marshal votes to put the initiative on the ballot, she was the target of a radio and television advertising campaign that urged constituents to call a 1-800 number that forwarded to her home phone. Parmon said she didn’t take her decision lightly, but thinks that most constituents understood when she explained why she had to oppose the amendment.

District 32 covers almost 75 percent of Winston-Salem and white voters hold a slight numeric edge over their black counterparts.

“Generally, black Democrats are more morally and socially conservative,” Parmon said. “I think this was a smoke screen that was put out there to divide Democrats, black and white. But when it comes down to it, it is discrimination.”