An amendment of many names

An amendment of many names

- in Weekly Briefing

Whichever one you use, it’s about exclusion and discrimination

One of the big challenges for caring and thoughtful North Carolinians in light of the General Assembly’s decision to place a constitutional amendment on next May’s primary ballot that purports to “define marriage” is: What in the heck should the proposal be called?

Especially in light of the powerful messages that can be conveyed in just a few words, “naming rights” are likely to be extremely important in shaping the amendment’s reception by voters. How can one convey the extent of the havoc the amendment would wreak in a pithy phrase or moniker? Should advocates get specific or keep it generic?

With any luck, a name will emerge in the coming days that is accurate (and maybe even effective in informing the public). For now, however, it might prove useful to examine some of the promising options as well as one name that ought to be rejected at all costs.

Don’t call it…

The marriage amendment – This is an easy one to slip into (we’ve been guilty here at NC Policy Watch), but it definitely falls short – both in terms of accuracy and effectiveness. First of all, the proposed amendment does much, much more than impact marriage. As constitutional scholar, Professor Maxine Eichner of the UNC School of Law informed the audience at yesterday’s NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon, the proposed amendment would be one of the most far reaching in the nation.

By saying that a heterosexual marriage is the “only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State,” the proposal goes well beyond marriage and would create all sorts of problems in other areas – many of which seem likely to trouble even the opponents of same-sex “marriage.”

As Professor Eichner noted, the amendment could jeopardize current state domestic violence protections for unmarried couples and child custody rights of domestic partners (even if they are heterosexual). The amendment would also pretty clearly prevent the state from adopting other protections for unmarried couples in the future that fall well short of marriage, including: the right to family hospital visitation privileges, the right to make medical decisions if a partner is incapacitated, the right for domestic partners to make funeral and burial arrangements for one another, the right to inherit when a partner dies without a will, and the right to be named guardian or conservator if one partner becomes incapacitated.

In addition to being woefully inaccurate, the name “marriage amendment” is also bad politics. It gives people the impression that they’re voting “for” or “against” marriage, when in fact, a “for” vote acts to limit marriage and assure that millions of North Carolinians now and in the future will have no hope of ever enjoying even a civil union or any other watered down version of marriage rights.

Names that would be accurate

The marriage discrimination amendment – This one’s pretty obvious. By permanently limiting the definition of marriage in North Carolina, the amendment singles out a segment of the population and etches in stone its second-class status.

As Evan Wolfson, President and Founder of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry said in his remarkably eloquent speech this week at the same Crucial Conversation event (please click here to watch the entire 20 minutes):

“These people here in North Carolina, these committed and loving gay couples who are building a life here, who are contributing to the community, will be massively, severely, punitively and cruelly harmed by the passage of this amendment. This amendment would deny them for all time the freedom to marry here in the state they call home. It would also deny them any other measure of protection, large or small, that the state can provide to families – particularly in tough economic times like these.

This amendment would tie the hands of this generation, the next generation of North Carolinians, their elected representatives, their universities, their businesses and others who seek to provide, through small programs and large, ways in which families can organize themselves, can support themselves, can arrange their economic affairs, can be entwined and involved in the community. This amendment would preclude marriage and all other family protections, large and small, for a group of North Carolina families. And so, first and foremost, this amendment is about those families and the direct injury that would be wreaked by the state on some of our own through the weaponry of the law.”

The anti-marriage amendment – In a strange bit of twisted logic, proponents of the amendment attempt to argue that forever limiting marriage to different sex couples is necessary in order to “protect” marriage from becoming “devalued” and to prevent those couples from becoming less interested in staying in marriages. But as Professor Holning Lau told and showed the Crucial Conversation audience, in addition to being illogical, this argument flies in the face of the facts.

Lau looked at the experience in three states (Washington, Connecticut and Massachusetts) that permit same sex marriage or civil unions and found that the overall marriage rate has either stayed flat or increased. Meanwhile, the divorce rate in these states has either declined or stayed flat. Conversely, in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia (states with amendments) marriage and divorce rates have experienced negative trends since passage.

The anti-family amendment – Proponents also attempt to argue that heterosexual marriage is necessary for optimal child rearing results. But, again, as Lau also noted, data indicate otherwise. Lau cited research in dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies that document no disadvantage for children raised in same sex couples in such areas as mental health, social adjustment, school performance, and behavioral problems.

The anti-economic competitiveness amendment – Lau also provided compelling evidence to support the common sense conclusion that adoption of a constitutional amendment would send precisely the wrong message to the creative classes (i.e. the smart and innovative people who create jobs and economic growth in the 21st Century) at a time in the world in which their presence is desperately needed. That some North Carolinians would want to exclude such people and dissuade them from staying and/or relocating to their state in these economic hard times is beyond amazing.

There are, of course, other names that would be accurate and convey the right message. As noted above, these might include: The anti-civil unions amendment, the domestic violence protection limitation amendment, the limits on hospital visitations amendment, the state control over who you can designate end-of-life decision to amendment, or maybe even the anti-inheritance freedom amendment. Evan Wolfson thinks anti-gay amendment puts things succinctly and accurately.

Reading the political tea leaves

No one knows at this point, of course, which name will end up as the name that the media and the public will latch onto in the weeks and months ahead. Given the general resistance to using “loaded” language in the mainstream news media, it may well be that opponents would simply do well to focus on the use of more generic terms like the marriage limitation amendment or amendment one.

Whichever label ends up rising to the top, however, let’s hope all North Carolinians concerned about promoting freedom and equality and saying “no” to exclusion and discrimination get right to work helping their fellow citizens understand the truth that lies behind it.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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