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Marriage equality in North Carolina and beyond

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It's been an eventful year for the marriage equality movement.

The Barack Obama administration, which has been largely silent on GLBT issues since the election, recently raised the ire of marriage equality advocates when the Justice Department issued a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that candidate Obama spoke out against it.

Signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the DOMA defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman and says no state must recognize a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if it is considered a marriage in another state.

President Obama later extended some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, but outrage over the DOMA brief has fueled a campaign among GLBT advocates to withhold fund-raising dollars for the Democratic Party until the party and the president take a stronger stand in support of gay rights.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have passed laws establishing marriage equality, going further than the civil unions and domestic partnerships available to residents of New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. Yet those advances were upstaged by the back-and-forth in California, where Proposition 8—a voter referendum that changed the state constitution to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman—was later upheld in part by the state supreme court.

Here in North Carolina, however, advocates of marriage equality have been on the defensive once again this year.

North Carolina law explicitly states, "Marriages, whether created by common law, contracted, or performed outside of North Carolina, between individuals of the same gender are not valid in North Carolina."

As they have in previous sessions, conservative state lawmakers this year proposed legislation (House Bill 361/ Senate Bill 272) that would also prohibit any recognition of civil unions, domestic partnerships or similar relationships in the state. The language is so broad, it could even prevent private companies from extending domestic partner benefits to their employees, Equality North Carolina Executive Director Ian Palmquist says. Though the bills didn't make it out of committee, they forced equality advocates to play defense in the legislature.

A March poll by Elon University showed more than half of North Carolinians polled opposed the amendment, while 43 percent supported it.

The 2010 Census will count same-sex couples for the first time, which could be a step toward federal recognition.

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