Heated debate over proposed marriage amendment highlights town hall meeting

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem resident Janet Owen (center) speaks with Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth) about the Defense of Marriage Act at the conclusion of a town hall meeting in Kernersville on Sept. 8. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

During a two-hour town hall meeting in Kernersville on Sept. 8, Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth) covered a broad array of topics. Folwell spoke about the Republican Party’s legislative victories during the 2011 regular session, the issue of illegal immigration and statewide redistricting. But when Folwell, the speaker pro tem of the NC House, broached the subject of a defense-of-marriage amendment to the state constitution, it touched off a contentious exchange between the lawmaker and those in attendance.

Folwell defended his support of the amendment, saying that when he first ran for office in 2004 he told voters that he believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman and he’s sticking to his guns.

NC Senate Bill 106 and NC House Bill 777, or the Defense of Marriage Act, calls for an amendment to the NC Constitution that states a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that will be valid or recognized in the state. If the measure passes, it will appear on the ballot during the 2012 primary election.

“We’re pushing the power away from us and bringing it down to the people of this state,” Folwell said.

Folwell pointed out that 30 other states have adopted similar constitutional amendments and the NC legislature already passed a law banning gay marriage in 1996. A vote on Senate Bill 106 is expected sometime this week.

Sam Parker, director of organizing for Equality NC, asked Folwell if he would square off against Alex Miller, interim executive director of the nonprofit, in a debate of the Defense of Marriage Act. Folwell agreed to debate Miller.

Parker addressed the 1996 law, stating that the state has undergone tremendous changes in the past 15 years. She cited a Public Policy Polling survey released last week that revealed registered North Carolina voters said that if the election were held today they would vote against the marriage amendment by a 55-30 margin. The 55-percent figure closely reflected the 54 percent of the state’s voters who said they support legally recognizing gay couples, according to the polling firm’s website.

“This amendment will create an ugly and divisive campaign,” Parker said. “It’s divisive for our kids, it hurts the LGBT community. Why would you support it?” “Because I told people I would support it,” Folwell replied. Debbie Walker, a Kernersville resident, asked Folwell why the majority of North Carolinians gets to vote on the rights of a minority group.

“I feel inadequate to answer your question,” Folwell said.

The next speaker identified herself as “Emily” and stated that her daughter is openly gay. She said creating a constitutional amendment that would discriminate against the gay community would not be fair to anyone, including voters. Emily said she was disappointed in Folwell, whom she believed to be a reasonable man. Emily pleaded with Folwell to open his heart, and received a standing ovation from many in attendance.

The next speaker said the effect of the proposed amendment is essentially saying to members of the LGBT community they have no value.

Another speaker said she has a gay son and she has witnessed the  pain caused by discrimination against a minority group. She said the amendment violates the separation of church and state. Folwell responded, stating that North Carolina has sanctioned marriage for hundreds of years, and if the state is going to sanction marriage, it ought to protect it. Another speaker identified himself as a longtime friend of Folwell’s. He said a marriage amendment does not reflect a conservative philosophy.

 “You know in your heart you’re on the wrong side of this equation,” he said. “Please do not impose your belief system on me and the other citizens of North Carolina.” Two speakers said they supported the marriage amendment, as citizens began to debate the issue. As the debate got heated, a Kernersville police officer intervened and instructed audience members to direct their comments and questions to Folwell. One citizen said straight people have more than a thousand rights that members of the gay community do not enjoy. “We want to be equal,” he said. Roger Hayes, senior pastor of the Holy Spirit Fellowship, told Folwell that he believes the marriage amendment is a civil rights issue and the Bible teaches to love all people regardless of their sexual orientation. After the meeting, a number of citizens spoke with Folwell about the marriage amendment and other issues. Janet Owen, a Winston-Salem resident, said she is opposed to the Defense of Marriage Act. “I asked [Rep. Folwell] why he keeps saying there’s no difference between the [NC] Constitution and the statute when clearly there is,” Owen said. “The statute can be easily changed if there are unexpected consequences of a law that gets passed. The legislature can go back in and fix it and they’ve done that a lot in the past because there are often unintended consequences, but a constitutional amendment can’t be fixed that way.” The proposed marriage amendment has generated a significant amount of controversy across the state. On Monday, Equality NC sponsored candlelight vigils in Greensboro and Winston-Salem to protest what it calls the “anti-gay constitutional amendment.” The Rev. Ron LaRocque of the Metropolitan Community Church of Winston-Salem began a hunger strike on Sunday afternoon in a show of opposition to the marriage amendment. LaRocque said his hunger strike is a prayerful act not an act of civil disobedience. LaRocque said as a member of the clergy, he finds it offensive to put people’s God-given need to love and be loved to a popular vote. LaRocque said the Bible clearly states that God is present in all loving relationships and he finds it inappropriate for people to take a popular vote on the worth of love. “I think it’s highly inappropriate for politicians to get involved in the religious affairs of the citizenry,” LaRocque said. “This amendment advances one particular understanding of marriage at the cost of all other religious understandings.” “The state has no place to consider [samesex unions] less than a marriage performed in a Baptist Church,” he added. “It’s inappropriate to use people as pawns like this.” Owen said she is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which embraces same-sex marriage. “We embrace LGBTQ individuals as fully human and give them all of the dignity and respect that we give to every other human being,” she said. “Anyone who is discriminated against by virtue of their ethnicity, their heritage, their gender, their economic status; we stand on the side of love with everyone.”

During the meeting, David Moore, a Kernersville resident, brought up statewide redistricting. Moore said the citizens of Kernersville and its elected officials are opposed to the town being split into two legislative districts — the 74th District and the 75th District. Folwell represents the 74th District. Under the district plan adopted by the General Assembly on July 28, Folwell’s district stretches from west Winston-Salem to Kernersville. Moore complained to Folwell that the state legislature ignored the wishes of the people of Kernersville when it redrew the district maps. Folwell said the lines were redrawn because Forsyth County didn’t grow as fast as other counties in the state. Folwell touted the legislative achievements of the Republican Party, specifically those measures he said have made the state a more business-friendly environment. Folwell said the Protect and Put NC Back to Work Act helped reform the state’s workers’ compensation laws by capping temporary benefits to workers injured on the job. Folwell said America has lost the desire to achieve. Whitney Bost disagreed with Folwell’s position. “There is a desire to achieve but there are no jobs,” Bost said. “Our workers, what they need is quality healthcare and if they’re injured on the job, companies have a responsibility to those workers and they need to get them the quality care they need. They need to make sure if those workers are not able to work, they’re compensated.”