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'But they can still marry straight people'


Meredith and Melissa Weiss planned to go to Vermont for a civil union ceremony, but when Canada began performing same-sex marriages they changed their plans. The couple said "I do" in Toronto in August 2003. When the newlyweds returned to their home in Chapel Hill, their fight to secure basic rights as a married couple in North Carolina began. The couple went through the legal system to chisel away at the inequities, changing their names and using power of attorney and wills. North Carolina law does not recognize the Weiss' union, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Members of the House and Senate are working this legislative session to pass a Defense of Marriage bill, which could make the Weiss' marriage unconstitutional, as well.

"To be denied this huge thing in our society is hard," Melissa Weiss says. "The bottom line is we're already married and we're living here. The only thing we want is to have the rights that everyone else has."

House Bill 55 and Senate Bill 8, both introduced the first week of the legislative session, call for a statewide referendum on a Defense of Marriage Act. If passed, North Carolina voters would go to the polls to decide if the state should adopt a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Defense of Marriage bills were introduced last session in the House and Senate, but the bills did not receive enough votes to get out of committee. Neither chamber voted on the bill, but Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who has sponsored the bill both sessions, said he thinks the timing is better this year. The bill was introduced at the beginning of the session instead of the end, Moore said, and will allow lawmakers more time to debate.

However, proponents of the bill think the timing is also right in the political climate, says Sharon Thompson, a family lawyer in Durham who works with same-sex couples throughout the state.

"I think conservatives think now is the time," Thompson says. "I think they are riding on a wave from the election."

That attitude is reflected in the 2004 N.C. Republican Party platform, which states, "We oppose actions, such as 'marriage' or the adoption of children by same-sex couples, which attempt to legitimize and normalize homosexual relationships. We support the Defense of Marriage Act and will support a constitutional amendment to ensure that marriage is limited to the union of one man and one woman."

However, some Democrats are also standing behind this initiative. Rep. Dewey Hill (D-Brunswick) and Rep. James Crawford (D-Granville) are two of the four sponsors of the House bill, and numerous co-sponsors come from their side of the aisle.

"I have no problem with peoples' lifestyles. Whatever they decide is fine," Hill says. "I just believe marriage is a sacred thing and should be between a man and a woman."

If the bill does make it to the floor for a debate, it will be notably different from last session. Supporters of the bill will have to debate marriage laws with the first openly gay legislator in the state, Sen. Julia Boseman (D-New Hanover).

"I think the law in North Carolina is very clear and has not been challenged," Boseman says. "We have more important things to worry about ... It's singling out a group of people who don't ask for any special rights and slapping them in the face."

According to the 2000 Census, there are at least 16,198 same-sex couples in North Carolina, and more than one-forth of those residents have children. Thompson says a DOMA would further prevent these families from securing legal rights, such as child custody and health care privileges. In North Carolina, more than 130 laws make a distinction about whether the person is married or not.

"Gay people are saying we want to step up to the plate and accept responsibility for our lives and our families," Thompson says. "Talk about strengthening families."

However, supporters of the bill say a constitutional amendment is needed to uphold traditional marriage and protect it from challenges in the courts. Massachusetts has become the poster child in the rhetoric of how courts can overturn state marriage law. In February 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional.

"I hear people say our marriage laws are discriminatory, but our marriage laws and the rights to obtain marriage are consistent with everybody," says John Rustin, director of government relations for the North Carolina Policy Council, a non-profit organization working for "traditional family values." "People involved with homosexual behavior can still get married, just not to people of the same sex."

Meredith and Melissa say they will fight the constitutional amendment and hope people will write their legislators to encourage them to fight the bill, too.

"It appalls me that any state would write discrimination into the constitution," Melissa says. "The constitution is supposed to give us rights. If [the bill] passes, I don't know if we'd stay here."

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