As North Carolina prepares to decide how it wants to define marriage, Duke is setting itself firmly on the side of equality.
On May 8, registered North Carolina voters—including Duke students who hail from outside the state—can vote on Amendment One, a change to the state constitution that would define marriage as strictly between one man and one woman. The amendment, which provides that heterosexual marriage be the only domestic partnership recognized by the state, is stirring passion and prompting activism on both sides of the debate. Although recent polls show that a majority of North Carolinians support the proposed amendment, Duke, as a campus and an institution, is coming down squarely against it.
On Feb. 17, Duke University and Duke Medicine released a joint statement saying they “stand alongside the LGBT community in seeking a more equal world.” In a recent email to The Chronicle, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote that the University “thinks it is vital to support, celebrate and affirm Duke’s commitment to a society free from discrimination of any kind... and believes it is essential that we continue to offer benefits to same-sex partners and work toward an environment of equality and inclusion.”
Were the amendment to be approved, North Carolina would no longer recognize the civil unions that guarantee domestic partnership benefits for both gay and straight unmarried couples. Because it is a private institution, Duke can continue to provide a wealth of benefits to same-sex couples—including providing health insurance and welcoming same-sex unions at the Duke Chapel and the Duke Gardens—even if the amendment passes. But public employers like local governments and the University of North Carolina system could no longer offer domestic partnership benefits to unmarried couples—benefits that affect hospital visitation rights, end-of-life arrangements, medical and financial decision-making and domestic violence protections.
Supporters of the amendment say it is high time to put the question to a popular vote, arguing that the definition of marriage should be up to the people to decide, rather than state legislatures or activist judges.
“It is too serious a topic for a handful of people [legislators] to make a decision like that,” Rep. Larry Brown (R, Davidson, Forsyth) told the Winston-Salem Journal.
Behind the effort to let the people decide is a concerted campaign to enshrine traditional marriage—between one man and one woman—into the state’s constitution. The referendum committee in support of the measure, Vote for Marriage NC, is attempting to frame gay marriage as a threat to the “traditional family structure” that best meets the interests of children. They argue that the amendment’s passage would protect the time-tested values that allow for safe and healthy family units.
“While many people would like to believe that proposals to allow same-sex marriage are simply about allowing a different form of marriage to coexist alongside traditional man/woman marriage, they are wrong,” states the committee’s website. “The impact that same-sex marriage will have on society is much deeper and more far-reaching than a modest change in the word’s definition. We will have an inevitable increase in children born out of wedlock, an increase in fatherlessness, a resulting increase in female and child poverty and a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.” Conservative leaders across the state repeatedly stress that the amendment is not seeking to discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“It’s not the anti-gay amendment,” emphasized Bill Brooks, president and executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of the family and traditional family values. “It’s the marriage protection amendment.” Opponents, though, see the measure as discrimination—plain and simple.
“We’re extremely against the amendment,” said senior Ari Bar-Mashiah who is president of Blue Devils United. “Imagine being a 16-year-old homosexual in North Carolina right now. Your state is basically telling you, ‘you’re an other who doesn’t deserve the same rights as heterosexuals.’ And not only [would the amendment] discriminate against LGBT individuals, it would affect heterosexual couples as well. It changes domestic abuse laws, it changes adoption laws for both gay and straight individuals.”
The latest Public Policy Poll, conducted in January, found that 56 percent of North Carolinians support the amendment while 34 percent are opposed; ten percent are unsure. At the same time, however, opinion polls consistently show that a majority of state residents support some type of legal recognition for same-sex couples, whether it be civil unions or marriage. Amendment opponents see this disconnect as evidence that some voters may not be fully aware of the proposed ban’s wide-ranging consequences, notably the prohibition of civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Elena Botella, a junior and co-president of Duke Democrats, said her organization will work to increase voter awareness of the amendment in the next 10 weeks.
“A big part of the statewide campaign will be reminding people that civil unions will be made unconstitutional by this amendment, not just marriage,” she said.
At Duke, the campaign against the amendment is also focusing on raising voter turnout. Botella said Duke Democrats will sponsor phone bank dates on which Duke students can call other students to remind them to vote and correct any misconceptions they might have about the amendment. Duke will provide an early voting site on West Campus—open Monday through Saturday from April 19 to May 5—that will allow students to cast their vote before the referendum May 8.
Other campus activists are working to present a unified front against the amendment. The Duke Together campaign is a coalition of student groups, faculty and staff working together to defeat the measure. The organization plans to release a video called “Make it Better,” a montage of Duke community leaders speaking out against the amendment. David Winegar, a freshman and a director of Duke Together, wrote in an email that the video will include, among others, President Richard Brodhead; Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta; Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education; Dean of Duke Chapel Sam Wells and Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Duke College Republicans has decided not to take an official stance on the amendment, said DCR Chair Chloe Rockow, a junior, adding that the organization’s executive board is divided on the issue.
“We’re trying to raise voter awareness in a non-partisan manner... especially since we don’t have a solid single opinion on the amendment,” she said, noting that DCR is attempting to redefine its organization on a campus whose conservatives may not always agree with the Republican Party line on social issues.
Duke Student Government President Pete Schork, a senior, said he thinks the vast majority of students who are fully informed about the amendment are opposed to it. Still, he acknowledged, “there’s quite possibly a silent minority in favor of the amendment—but they’re not visible at all.” The May 8 ballot initiative will be an important bellwether for the national gay rights movement.
While several states have legalized gay marriage—Maryland’s state legislature became the latest to approve such a measure Feb. 23—North Carolina is the only Southern state without a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. If the measure were to fail, it would send a powerful message that the gay rights movement has begun to find traction in the South.
The amendment was referred to the ballot by the N.C. General Assembly—a legislature whose two houses are both controlled by Republicans for the first time since 1870. The GOP rode into office in the 2010 midterm elections on a powerful wave of voter discontent with both a sagging economy and a Democratic president whose aggressive fiscal stimulus and domestic agenda were successfully maligned as ineffective, big government intrusions bankrupting America.
Although Republicans swept into office promising to cut spending and restore jobs—and they successfully overrode Democratic Governor Bev Perdue’s veto to pass a budget that cuts taxes and slashes spending, particularly in education—they have aggressively pursued a social agenda as well.
“There was within the Republican Party a lot of pent-up demand not just to change the state budget but to bring up issues that had been derailed or put on the back burner during the years of Democratic majority,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill and an expert on Southern politics. “Having a near veto-proof majority set in motion a dynamic that allowed the Republican caucus to elevate issues like gay marriage, issues that had been pent up for so long. Rather than govern from the center, the Republican legislators as a unit decided to govern from the right.”
Besides voter turnout, the passage of the referendum on the amendment will hinge on the state’s political context in May. Perdue has decided not to run for re-election, meaning that the ballot will include a Democratic gubernatorial primary election, theoretically increasing turnout among Democratic voters. At the same time, however, the national Republican presidential primary—which looks anything but settled—may still be competitive in May, which would presumably drive up the Republican voter turnout.
Regardless of context, however, the activism efforts on both sides of the debate will play a large role in determining the amendment’s fate.
Duke Together believes it can turn out 8,000 members of the Duke community, a large majority of whom the campaign expects will vote against the amendment, Botella said. Relying on previous early voting turnout numbers in similar state primary elections, this would amount to approximately 1 percent of the vote, a substantial portion considering that ballot initiatives are sometimes decided by less than 1 percent.
DCR president Rockow said she thinks that regardless of how Duke students vote, it is important that they go to the polls.
“We think it’s more important to get people to vote for whatever they believe in, not to tell them, ‘this is how you should vote,’” she said. And even though she considers herself a staunch conservative, Rockow acknowledged that she along with several members of DCR’s executive board will be voting against the amendment.