Two weeks ago, Amendment One passed with 61 percent of the vote, despite the efforts of activists in the state and among the student body. Although the passage of the amendment represents a codification of discrimination and a step backward for the state, the University has done everything in its power to reaffirm its commitment to LGBT rights within the new legal framework. We commend administrators for their efforts and hope they continue to support equality.
The vote’s outcome is a reminder that North Carolina is still a socially conservative state in step with our Southern neighbors, despite the leftward leanings of Research Triangle Park and several other urban areas. The results may have shocked many who hardly saw so much as a pro-amendment banner in Durham during the months leading up to the vote, when most of the state rallied to support it. Fortunately, the University has done its part to offer the little consolation it can in light of the amendment’s passage: The day after the amendment was approved, Duke officials announced they would continue to extend same-sex partner benefits to faculty and staff members, as they have since 1994.
Although the note essentially reaffirmed the status quo, it sent a symbolically and substantively important message to LGBT employees—both current and potential—that Duke will exercise its freedom and power as a private institution to protect equal rights for same-sex couples. Partner privileges, including medical and dental care, retirement plans and survivor benefits, may be a deciding factor for families considering employment in North Carolina. That Duke offers benefit plans on par with those in states that allow same-sex marriage renders a potential dealbreaker a non-issue. And that the Duke community, with 95 percent of voters on campus voting against, has proven to be so resoundingly against the amendment should assure LGBT employees and students that discriminatory practices have no place here.
Still, the passage of Amendment One may negatively affect Duke regardless of the administration’s commitments to maintaining the current benefits. As it stands, the amendment would also prohibit civil unions, ensuring that same-sex couples would have no rights when it comes to power of attorney and adoption. It remains to be seen whether LGBT families and individuals will view the state amendment as a hostile enough gesture to seek residence elsewhere, or whether the Triangle’s LGBT-friendly reputation will supersede state legislation. At best, things remain as they are, and at worst, Duke suffers the loss of talented faculty and students to schools in states where their rights have not been challenged in this way.
We encourage other employers in North Carolina to follow suit in leveraging their power against Amendment One, however they can. An affirmation from equal-opportunity private employers that they will continue to offer the same same-sex partner benefits is a step in the right direction. We also hope that Duke will put its weight behind activists’ continuing efforts to repeal the amendment, farfetched as they may be. We cannot stand back and hope that Amendment One, once a distant threat but now an unfortunate reality, will leave Duke unscathed. Nor can we underestimate the importance of support for the LGBT community when the administration’s hands are tied by the law as they now are.
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