August/September 2012 Cover Story of Citizen
Facing waves of hostility and vandalism, North Carolina voters stood up for marriage against efforts to redefine it. But they almost didn’t get the chance to vote at all—except for the hard work and prayers of committed family advocates.
Just as the media were pushing the idea that Americans are racing to embrace same-sex marriage, voters in one state sent a resounding message: Not so fast.
In a heavy-turnout election on May 8, North Carolinians passed a constitutional amendment upholding marriage as a one man-one woman union by a wide margin, 61 to 39 percent.
“It’s historic,” said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Vote FOR Marriage NC—the referendum committee for some of the groups which worked on the pro-marriage amendment campaign—and head of the North Carolina Values Coalition. “A vote this size shows that the shift in the culture hasn’t happened nearly as much as the opposition thought.
“And it’s not just here. A majority of people, not just in North Carolina but in the country, support marriage between one man and one woman,” Fitzgerald told Citizen.
Even some people on the other side couldn’t argue. As the results came in, someone from the liberal Public Policy Polling firm sent out this Tweet: “Hate to say it, but I don’t believe polls showing majority support for gay marriage nationally. Any time there’s a vote, it doesn’t back it up.”
North Carolina became the 30th state to embed this definition of marriage in its Constitution, and the 32nd where voters have supported that definition. In every state where the people have been given the chance to do so, they’ve taken it.
But they don’t always get that chance. And they came within a hair of not getting that chance in North Carolina—succeeding only with the work, leadership and prayers of devoted pro-family advocates and legislators.
If you want to know the history of the struggle to protect marriage in the Tar Heel State, talk to Bill Brooks. He’s been president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC)—associated with Focus on the Family—since 1994.
“We’ve been working on the marriage issue as long as I’ve been at (NCFPC),” Brooks told Citizen. “We were one of the first states to pass a Defense of Marriage Act.”
That was in 1996. But as rogue judges and gay activists grew more aggressive, he said, “We realized we needed a constitutional amendment, so we went to Sen. Jim Forrester, who readily agreed to sponsor the measure.”
That would prove a tougher row to hoe. Forrester, R-Stanley—a physician and former Air Force general—did indeed introduce the bill. But legislative leaders never let it reach a floor vote. Though Forrester kept bringing it back every year for over a decade, with the state Senate in the hands of a virtually permanent ruling party—Democrats had been the majority since 1870—nothing seemed likely to change.
Then came the Tea Party-driven elections of 2010, and a change in legislative leadership that opened the door to the marriage amendment. Even then, though, it would take a 60 percent majority vote in both chambers before the measure could make it to the ballot. That meant 72 votes in the House, requiring at least four Democrats to join the effort. It also meant 30 in the Senate—exactly the number of Republicans.
The showdown came in September 2011. The marriage amendment passed the House on Sept. 12 by a 75-42 vote: Some Democrats supported it in return for placing it on the ballot in the May 2012 primaries rather than in November’s general elections, when it might bring more traditional-values voters to the polls.
The Senate vote the next day, however, turned more challenging when three Republicans balked at supporting the bill. And that’s when pro-family advocates, who’d been working hard all along, shifted into an even higher gear.
“When we got word that the Senate was having problems getting members lined up, we—all the groups that’d been fighting for this amendment—put our grassroots people to work,” Fitzgerald said. “We started calling pastors and putting out ads aimed at those legislators.”
On Sept. 13, a group of those pastors went to the Capitol to pray and meet with senators. Several of them sat in the gallery, watching the debate and praying for members. In the end, the Republican Caucus held ranks and the amendment passed, 30-16—with not a single vote to spare.
“We easily could have come up short,” Brooks said. “The big thing is that we had some legislative leaders who were committed and worked hard to get it through.”
All agree it was the prayers and hard work of marriage supporters that brought the victory. Now it’s a sweet memory with only one bittersweet element: Perhaps the foremost of those leaders—Sen. Forrester, the measure’s longtime champion—passed away a few weeks later, on Oct. 31, at age 74. He’d shepherded the amendment through the legislature, but wouldn’t get to see the people’s vote.
“He often told me he would retire after the marriage bill passed,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I liken that to Moses: He led the Israelites for years, but he didn’t get to cross over into the Promised Land.”
Myth vs. Reality
Like the Israelites, pro-family leaders knew they wouldn’t enter the land without a fight. And that meant they’d have to marshal a lot of troops.
Besides Brooks and Fitzgerald, that included church leaders like Mark Harris, president of the state’s Baptist Convention; Raleigh pastor Patrick Wooden, who led a coalition of African-American clergy; and the Rev. Mark Creech, head of the Christian Action League. It also included Catholic Voice North Carolina, the state Catholic Church’s public-policy body.
And it included national-level veterans of similar campaigns, including the National Organization for Marriage and CitizenLink, the public-policy arm of Focus on the Family.
“There wasn’t any one group where you could say, ‘This wouldn’t have happened without them,’ ” Brooks said, hailing the number of participants. “Everybody pitched in.”
Fitzgerald, too, was thrilled with the number of people who got involved.
“We worked with 6,000 churches across the state, not counting those who operated through the Catholic dioceses,” she said. “We had 81 county coordinators out of the 100 counties. We had hundreds of pastor conferences and rallies across the state. Basically, we were everywhere.”
They had to be, to counteract the two chief advantages their opponents had: money and media.
As in many states, gay activists and their allies enjoyed a large funding edge, ultimately spending about $2.5 million, compared to marriage supporters’ $1.6 million. They were also able to use sympathetic media outlets to publicize their message. And knowing they couldn’t win a straight-up vote on the marriage issue, they tried to change the subject.
Because the amendment also banned recognition of civil unions, its opponents claimed it was “vague” and would lead to a host of “unintended consequences” for all unmarried couples—removing their children’s health insurance, interrupting their child-custody legal proceedings, and taking away domestic-violence protections.
Vote FOR Marriage NC effectively rebutted those claims, documenting their lack of substance and holding a press conference with respected authorities—former district attorneys, a former judge, family-law experts—to hammer those points home.
“Our opponents focused on mythical consequences,” Fitzgerald said. “We focused on real consequences of same-sex marriage—the impact on our children, the erosion of religious liberty and of our personal freedoms, the threat posed by activist judges to redefine a historical institution.”
“Their strategy was to confuse people,” he said. “They threw out a new argument every week to see what would stick. One of their strategies was to keep calling it ‘Amendment One,’ so no one would know what it was about. “They tried ‘Amendment One hurts families.’ They tried ‘Amendment One hurts children.’
“Their rule was, ‘Never talk about marriage as the union of a man and a woman.’ So wekept saying ‘marriage amendment,’ ‘marriage amendment.’ We put it at the start of everything we wrote; I did it in all my interviews. That was half the battle right there.”
‘What Can I Do to Help?’
Words like “fight” and “battle” are usually metaphors, of course—but not always. In the long haul to protect marriage in North Carolina, sometimes things got rough—for property and, occasionally, for people.
“We distributed 75,000 yard signs to the far reaches of the state, and about half of them—half—were stolen,” Fitzgerald said. “Churches and billboards were vandalized; one billboard was set on fire. Yet the press never reported these crimes, despite numerous (calls to the media).
Fitzgerald has anecdotes of personal harassment as well. Like the case of a woman allegedly assaulted by a gay male neighbor because of a pro-marriage amendment sign in her yard. (The legal outcome was still pending at press time.) Or the doctor whose business was targeted by an online petition because his mother was a Vote FOR Marriage county coordinator.
“The other side talks a lot about ‘hate,’ ” Fitzgerald noted. “But they don’t talk about hate displayed by their allies. We could tell some stories.”
The hostility marriage advocates faced, however, paled next to the support they got. “We heard from so many people, unsolicited,” Fitzgerald said. “ ‘How can I get a yard sign?’ ‘How can I get a bumper sticker?’ ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
Over at NCFPC, Brooks had the same experience. “Lots of people called us to get involved,” he said. “We had written extensively on marriage and the marriage amendment for years, so we had a wealth of information and arguments available to help.”
The weekend before the vote, the famed evangelist appeared in a full-page ad in 14 state newspapers, paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the meaning of marriage,” it read. “The Bible is clear—God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote FOR the marriage amendment on Tuesday, May 8.”
When the dust settled, it turned out they had. The marriage amendment not only won by a wide margin, but with a wide base of support. Black voters backed it by a 2-1 ratio. It passed in 93 out of 100 counties, falling short only in the most culturally liberal areas.
“The opposition spent their media money in the seven largest counties,” Fitzgerald observed. “But we blanketed the entire state with ads, and we had one of the best-run social-media campaigns I’ve ever seen. And it all paid off. The rural counties really came through for us.”
Getting the right voters to the polls was a key. “We had identified about a million voters who supported the amendment,” Brooks said. “We called them all twice in the three days before the vote.”
After all this time, Brooks confesses to a certain sense of relief.
“From the start, we always felt that the votes were there. But as the years went by and we went from ‘Will & Grace’ to ‘Glee,’ we could see the numbers slipping,” he said.
So he’s pleased to see that—even with opponents distorting the effects of the marriage amendment in a scare campaign—the final vote left no doubt where the people stand.
“Everyone said ‘People have changed. They’re not for marriage amendments anymore,’ ” Brooks observed. “And all that turned out to be absolutely not true.”
Matt Kaufman is a contributing editor to Citizen.