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Goodbye DOMA: America is changing, and dragging North Carolina with it

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DOMA, the federal gay marriage ban, died last week. Amendment 1, North Carolina's gay marriage ban, did not.

At Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh's religious hub for gay activism, 150 people filled a dimly lit sanctuary, holding 150 burning candles above their heads, while John Lennon's "Imagine" played. What they imagined is an America where gays and lesbians are allowed to express their love the same as straight couples.

"The Supreme Court today reaffirmed our dignity and our humanity," Stuart Campbell, director of Equality NC, told the crowd. "But North Carolina doesn't have to recognize it."

DOMA's defeat doesn't erase the memory or the practical impact of May 8, 2012. That night, North Carolina's constitutional gay marriage ban passed and traditional marriage supporters celebrated victory by cutting a wedding cake, topped with a blond Barbie and brunette Ken, symbolizing their vision of a wholesome union.

The majority of Americans support gay marriage, most nationwide polls show. Still, 38 states have asserted their political influence by passing gay marriage bans, similar to North Carolina's.

"Nearly one-third of all Americans live in states where full marriage equality is now the law," Campbell told the crowd, referring to the 13 states that allow gay marriage. "Today was a symbolic victory. But this is still a nation divided. You have those with and those without."

Ashley Broadway and Heather Mack, North Carolina residents who were legally married in Washington, D.C., had hoped to attend the celebration at Pullen Memorial, but they were tired. Mack, an Army officer, works at Fort Bragg, and Broadway raises their two children. After the news broke, they went out for ice cream as a family.

"Until now the Army has only recognized me as a nanny to our two children," Broadway says. "That's the only reason they let me on the base."

The couple estimates they have lost more than $500,000 in military and tax benefits during the past 15 and a half years they've been together because of DOMA and Don't Ask Don't Tell. The latter was repealed in September 2011.

Lifting the federal gay marriage ban entitles the nation's estimated 150,000 legally married same sex couples, such as Broadway and Mack, to more than 1,100 federal benefits.

They can now file federal taxes as a married couple and include Broadway on Mack's insurance, even though they reside in North Carolina. The military will also acknowledge Broadway as a spouse and parent.

But North Carolina won't. The couple has a 3-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter. Mack is the biological mother. "God forbid if something were to happen to Heather, I would not be recognized as a parent or a spouse in this state," Broadway says. She would face a difficult time retaining custody of the children and claiming next-of-kin rights.

Under current law, same-sex spouses in North Carolina can't collect their partner's Social Security benefits, which depend on a couple's state of residency, rather than the state where the couple married.

"We'll probably leave in the next year or so, just because of Heather's job," Broadway says. "I'm a Southern girl. If it weren't for North Carolina's anti-gay laws, we might retire here. But that's not an option now. We want to live in a place where our family will be taken care of and we have full rights."

Unlike Roe v. Wade and other sweeping Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, the court's decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8 gives states the authority to govern marriage.

"For the country, it's better if it goes incrementally," argues Ernest Young, a professor at Duke Law School, who notes that it took decades for meaningful integration to happen in the South. "Real social change takes more than the courts saying it's so."

Young acknowledges that the "just wait your turn" argument was used by segregationists in the '50s and '60s. "I'm getting married in September, and if you told me I couldn't marry my fiancée until the democratic process took place, I'd be frustrated," he says. "If same-sex marriage does come, I think it will be a lot more secure if it's not dependent on courts, but the majority of people."

"We are certainly anxious and eager to have full equality as soon as we can get it," notes Campbell, the director of Equality NC. "We believe some of Justice [Anthony] Kennedy's language opens the door to a legal challenge against North Carolina's Amendment 1."

The central concept of Kennedy's argument is that it is unconstitutional to deny U.S. citizens dignity.

But even if a legal challenge is gay rights advocates' first move, Campbell acknowledges that the battle for "hearts and minds" is more important.

While gay rights activists were planning a celebration in Raleigh, the counter-revolution was mobilizing in Charlotte. The Southern Evangelical Seminary hatched a plan "to better prepare Christians to engage and win" the communications war at an October conference, according to a press release.

Richard Land, who heads the SES, refused to be interviewed for this story. He has compared the recent Supreme Court decision in importance to Roe v. Wade, "credited by conservatives as the spark that ignited Christian activism," he wrote. Yet Christian activism led, at least in part, to 41 abortion clinic bombings and eight murders between 1974 and 2010, according to the National Abortion Federation.

"The opposition is very real and we will prepare for it," says Campbell, of Equality NC. "But I believe it's too little, too late."

Gay rights advocates, however, may not find a receptive audience in the 61 percent of North Carolinians who voted for a constitutional ban on gay marriage last May.

That portion of North Carolina may be more disposed to Dr. Land's vision—that striking down DOMA was a devastating blow "to traditional marriage and religious freedom." Gay marriage, he argues, "is counter to God's plan."

The most effective challenge to that argument is Broadway and Mack's family. "We just try to be really present in the community so people can see that we're a family just like anybody else," Broadway says. "Our kids get sick. We sign them up for tee-ball. We take them to Chuck E. Cheese. We're just trying to raise our kids the best we can, like everybody else. When people see that, it changes them."

Imagine that.

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