Pro-marriage amendment forces gear up for public opinion battle

by Jordan Green

Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the NC Values Coalition, found herself in friendly territory when she spoke to the Forsyth County Republican Women at a Golden Corral restaurant in Winston-Salem last week. She addressed a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would make marriage between a man and woman the only recognized domestic legal union.

Fitzgerald told the standing-room only crowd that her daughter, Paige, was once a member of the Republican women’s group. Paige Barefoot works as an aide to Republican Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, a Forsyth County lawmaker who was a sponsor of the legislation to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. Her husband, Chad, is a candidate for NC Senate.

Speaking after a slate of candidates for county commission, Fitzgerald used her time to drill active party members on talking points on how to respond to opponents of the ballot initiative.

Fitzgerald argued that traditional marriage fits within the vision of the nation’s founders and that it promotes social good.

“Marriage also produces our next generation of workers so we’ll have someone to pay into Social Security,” she said. “Without marriage we wouldn’t have children to carry on. That seems silly to have to say it.”

Fitzgerald excoriated a host of actors who have in one way or another thrown up obstacles to the cause of passing a referendum to promote traditional marriage: “activist judges” in California who struck down a ban on gay marriage; Maxine Eichner, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has raised concerns that the proposed amendment in North Carolina might jeopardize domestic violence protections; the Guilford County register of deeds and other plaintiffs who have filed suit to enjoin the state from dictating to pastors whom they can and cannot marry; and the press, which she said has provide no help to her cause.

Emphasizing the urgency of amending the state constitution, Fitzgerald warned that a same-sex couple married in another state such as New York where the practice is legal could move to North Carolina and petition a court to uphold their marriage here. She told her Republican audience that North Carolina has “become a target for same-sex marriage,” and cited the Guilford County lawsuit.

“We are a target because activists who want to legalize same-sex marriage in spite of our strong marriage laws in NC can try to force same-sex marriage on the entire state through using the courts, instead of popular vote,” Fitzgerald said later in an e-mail.

“The Guilford County lawsuit just makes the threat real because of what we have warned of for years has actually happened now,” she added.

Plaintiffs on the lawsuit include Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, two pastors who would be willing to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies, a pastor who would not be willing to perform same-sex ceremonies, a lesbian couple and male same-sex couple who wish to marry, along with Carolyn Weaver and Burl Brinn. Thigpen said the lawsuit was filed in spite of the lawsuit rather than in response to it.

“I would like Tami Fitzgerald to meet Burl and Carolyn,” Thigpen said in an interview on March 24. “They are not gay. These are two permanently disabled people who want to make a public promise to each other that they will spend the rest of their lives together. They want to be married…. The clergy would love to marry them. They love each other. If they married they would lose their Medicaid benefits. That would be a death sentence for them.”

Thigpen added that the plaintiffs are “not running from” the fact that some of them are gay, but the purpose of the lawsuit is about more than "expanding marriage to cover gay couples.”

“Those people are going to still be here after this vote,” Thigpen continued. “They’re still going to be in committed relationships and they’re still going to not be able to have their relationships recognized publicly whatever the outcome of this vote. They’ll still be in the shadows.”

On Monday, Thigpen said he learned that Brinn has died. “Burl Brinn died without being able to marry the woman he loved,” Thigpen said. “And I think that is a shame.”

Fitzgerald disparaged Eichner’s analysis about possible unintended consequences of the amendment. Eichner has said the amendment’s stipulation that marriage between a man and a woman is “the only domestic legal union that shall be valid” might jeopardize domestic violence protections. Fitzgerald charged that Eichner bases her analysis on a lower-court ruling that was eventually overturned. And Fitzgerald argued that the law protects everyone, including roommates, from assault.

Eichner has acknowledged that the Ohio courts eventually resolved the problems caused by a similar ballot initiative.

“What we saw in Ohio was case after case of people who had committed domestic violence, admitted to domestic violence — you know, beaten their unmarried partners or thrown objects at them, been convicted sometimes for felonies, whose convictions were overturned causing state judges in opinions basically to beg the Ohio Supreme Court to resolve the issue,” Eichner told WRAL-TV in October. “Now, once the Ohio Supreme Court resolved it, that issue was cleared up, but you can’t walk past those two years of time and the rights that those interfered with. And those were vulnerable people during this time.”

Almost as an aside, Fitzgerald told her Forsyth County audience: “Domestic violence is 40 percent more prevalent among homosexual than heterosexual couples.” Fitzgerald cited a 2000 US Justice Department report as the source of the statistic. The report “found that same-sex cohabitants reported significantly more intimate partner violence than did opposite-sex cohabitants,” but cautioned, “Research on violence in same-sex relationships has been limited to studies of small, unrepresentative samples of gay and lesbian couples. Results from these studies suggest that same-sex couples are about as violent as heterosexual couples.”

Another study cited by Fitzgerald, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002, concluded, “Rates of battering victimization among urban [men who have sex with men] are substantially higher than among heterosexual men and possibly heterosexual women.”

“Our opponents often cite studies that are discredited time and time again,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality NC, a group campaigning to defeat the amendment. “I don’t recall seeing any studies that show a difference in domestic violence between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. I think the point I’d like to make is that our relationships are just as valid as anyone else’s and have the same issues of dealing with mundane issue and doing our best and being good citizens.”

Fitzgerald said she hoped the Forsyth County Commission would pass a resolution in support of the amendment. Several Republican members of the commission were present at the gathering to publicize their campaigns for office.

“They’re just looking at me and they’re smiling,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re not shaking their heads yes or no.”

Commissioner Bill Whiteheart told Fitzgerald that for him and his colleagues to provide a response would violate the state open meetings law, but said most of the Republicans on the commission are “true conservatives” and invited party members to lobby them in an appropriate manner. The Forsyth County Republican Party passed a resolution in support of the amendment, but the Guilford County Republican Party decided not to take a stand on the issue. Councils in Greensboro, Durham and Chapel Hill have passed resolutions in opposition to the amendment.

“Our opposition is well funded and well organized,” Fitzgerald said, adding that “what we’re up against is money pouring into our state from San Francisco, Hollywood and New York to defeat our marriage amendment.”

Fitzgerald said proponents of the constitutional amendment have hired the same consultants who managed the effort to pass Proposition 8, a similar ballot initiative in California, and were preparing to roll out a statewide radio and television advertising campaign.

Fitzgerald said opponents of the proposed amendment are targeting about 12 percent of the population that is on the fence and that opponents want voters to forget that the ballot initiative is about marriage, reframing it instead as a matter of protecting families.

Fitzgerald asked Forsyth County Republicans to open up their checkbooks to help the forces of traditional marriage counter that message.

“What we have to do now is fund the air war,” she said.