Legislatures are rarely pretty, and process goes out the window with regularity whenever a majority of the members are willing to chuck it. Even so, I've never seen anything like what the state House of Representatives did Monday, which was to introduce an amendment to the state constitution after lunch and pass it before dinner.
To get around the rules, House Republicans changed a bill already approved by the Senate (Senate Bill 514, if you want to look it up) from something to do with "nutrient sensitive waters" into a new version of their old standby, the Defense of Marriage Amendment (DOMA).
The "new" SB 514 would ban same-sex marriages in North Carolina not simply by law—the situation now—but by constitutional dictate. Civil unions and domestic partnerships, not currently banned, would also be verboten. The bill passed the House by a 76-42 vote. With another rule suspended, it was immediately passed a second and final time by a 75-42 vote. Then it was returned to the Senate, which passed it the following day, 30-16. Three Democrats and one Republican received excused absences and did not vote.
Legislative action on the DOMA was expected to begin in the Senate, not the House, when the special session on constitutional amendments began Monday. But it didn't, because two Senate Republicans were absent, and without them the GOP didn't think it could muster the 30 votes needed for a three-fifths majority in the upper chamber. (The GOP majority is 31-19.)
Constitutional amendments require a three-fifths vote in both houses to put them to a public referendum. In the House, the Republicans' 68-52 majority is four short of three-fifths, so some Democratic votes were needed. They were obtained by way of a deal: The referendum, which GOP leaders always said would be held in November 2012—on the same ballot as the presidential election, when turnout would be large—will instead be held during first primary elections, scheduled for next May. (The May date could change if courts hold the Republicans' redistricting plans illegal.)
So much for the Republican insistence that the referendum must be held in November to let the maximum number of voters have their say.
That was last week's argument. It, too, went out the window when 10 conservative Democrats, as the price of their support, said they'd only vote for the amendment if the referendum were moved to May. In November, they feared, a big anti-gay vote in their districts might spell the end of their own distinguished careers.
Now the referendum is slated for primary ballots, not the general election ballot. Which party is likely to have hotly contested primaries next year with big voter turnouts? Why, that would be the Republican Party, with its presidential and gubernatorial primaries. The Democratic primaries, on the other hand, look to be sleepy affairs in which President Barack Obama and Gov. Beverly Perdue are renominated with little or no opposition.
This is fair? Passing a constitutional amendment when the electorate is skewed so dramatically in favor of one party and against the other?
Let me be fair and note that, while the specific language of SB 514 was new, the basic idea—to discriminate in the constitution against LGBT citizens in matters of marriage and family law—has been the subject of Republican bills in the General Assembly going back at least to 2004.
A longstanding Republican complaint, repeated Monday by House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, was that when their party was in the minority, the Democratic leadership wouldn't even give their bills a public hearing.
So this year, with the Republicans in charge, how many public hearings were held? The answer is zero.
Which raises the question: If public hearings were the right thing to do when you weren't in power, why aren't you holding them now that you are? To which Stam's response is always some variation of, "Mom, they did it first."
Of course, as Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, responded when Stam said something along these lines on the House floor, the Democrats held no hearings because they had no intention of asking the voters to decide on gay marriage.
Whereas the Republicans, who totally intended it, failed not only to conduct hearings, they were in such a rush Monday that they couldn't even pause to entertain public comments during a brief meeting of the House Rules Committee called to "consider" SB 514, not even the usual one or two comments from whoever happens to be in the committee room, the faux form of public participation so commonly used in the General Assembly to keep the press from writing that no testimony was allowed. Sorry. "The schedule doesn't allow for it at this time," said Rules Committee Co-Chairman Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.
Even as the House was passing its proposed amendment, anti-gay and pro-gay rights rallies were under way outside the General Assembly buildings. A central question: What does God want the state constitution to say about marriage?
Pastor Patrick Wooden, head of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, told 300 folks at the anti-gay rally that God wants North Carolina to protect his "holy institution" by limiting it to male-female unions. "If we do it, I believe the people will be blessed," Wooden said.
To the contrary, said Bishop Tonyia Rawls, Charlotte-based prelate of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement. She's gay. She has been in a committed relationship with her partner for 12 years, and God's fine with that. "God made no mistake when he created me," Rawls told the 300 folks at the pro-gay rights rally.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, is the only openly gay member of the General Assembly. He, too, is a Christian who believes God loves him. "I am tired," Brandon said at the rally, "of people using my God and my Bible and my Savior for political gain."
Political gain is what it's all about, says Tim Tyson, the author-historian who is a professor at Duke University's Divinity School. Tyson's field is Christian politics, its uses and misuses.
This is no coincidence, Tyson told the pro-gay rally, that the Republicans are putting black conservative church leaders like Wooden out front at their anti-gay events. Their objective, he said, is to split "the mighty interracial wave that rose up and elected" Barack Obama in 2008. In particular, many black Democrats are social conservatives, and some may be persuaded to vote against pro-gay Democrats—or to stay home—if the gay-rights issue is front and center in the 2012 campaign.
"I call this thing the gay boogeyman amendment," Tyson said.
Tyson, an advisor to the state NAACP, is white. Rawls and Brandon are black. The NAACP has come out strongly against the anti-LGBT amendment.
Brandon said the thing he fears most about an anti-gay amendment on the ballot in 2012 is the TV and billboard ads telling gay children they're "an abomination." That's what he heard when he was growing up. He heard it again Monday as he walked by the anti-gay rally. If $10 million is spent on it next year, he said, gay kids won't be able to shut it out. "We all know what it's like to be that kid," Brandon said.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, is a military veteran, and he tied his no vote on the DOMA amendment to the oath North Carolina National Guard troops take to defend the state constitution. With "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" being repealed this month, openly gay men and women will be serving in the military, Martin said. "It is beyond the pale" to ask them to swear to defend a constitution that discriminates against them.