The U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide has gay marriage opponents in North Carolina feeling beleagured, but they haven’t given up on their cause.
Meanwhile, gay rights advocates are worried that gay couples who exercise their right to marry will find themselves fired from their jobs or otherwise discriminated against and have no legal recourse in North Carolina.
Gay marriage opponents are studying the high court’s decision. They are assessing their options on how to protect social conservatives from being forced to accept or tolerate something that is an anathema to them.
“Those who have clamored for same-sex marriage for so long are now saying that’s not enough,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition. “They’re going to keep pressing for all kinds of legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. And our goal will be to make sure that whatever it is that they’re going to try and do next doesn’t infringe upon the rights of people who have sincerely held religious beliefs to live and work according to their faith.”
Fitzgerald cited as an example the Pilgrims who colonized New England in the 1600s.
“They came here so they could exercise their religious beliefs freely,” she said. “And we certainly don’t want to erode religious freedom on the altar of sexual libertarianism.”
To that end, Fitzgerald and other social conservatives want the North Carolina legislature to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Similar laws have been passed in other states and by the federal government since the early 1990s.
Supporters say the act would protect religious people and organizations from lawsuits, government actions or losing tax-exempt status for following their faith.
Opponents of the proposal say the act is an attempt to legalize discrimination against gay couples and others.
The legislature’s two top leaders, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, both opposed gay marriage but said they won’t allow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to advance.
There was tremendous controversy this year when Indiana and Arkansas passed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts – major employers objected, for example. A number of Republicans in North Carolina objected to this state’s proposal and lobbied against it, and Moore announced he would stop it.
Berger said in June that existing law and religious liberty provisions in the state and federal constitutions are sufficient to protect people’s rights.
The 2015 gay marriage ruling has parallels with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, said Jere Z. Royall, the director of community impact and counsel for the N.C. Family Policy Council.
Even though abortion remains legal, he thinks public attitude is turning against it. That gives Royall hope on the gay marriage issue.
“Really we’ve seen through education and encouragement over a number of years that our country has changed, to now over a majority are pro-life,” Royall said.
“That’s one of the ways we’re looking at this ruling, the same way. That we will continue to encourage and educate people about marriage is the union of one man and one woman, in the same way that we have continued that effort on the sanctity of human life.”
Public opinion surveys don’t appear to support Royall.
Pollster Gallup Inc., for example, says 44 percent of people it surveyed this year called themselves pro-life, down from 51 percent in 2009. But 44 percent is a significant increase from 1995 when 33 percent were pro-life.
Fifty percent this year said they are pro-choice, up from 42 percent in 2009 and down from 56 percent in 1995.
The closeness of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, 5 to 4, gives hope to the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, a former Republican U.S. Senate candidate and leader in the passage of the 2012 marriage amendment.
“Really, this decision will remain in jeopardy of being overturned by a simple change in the landscape of the Supreme Court,” Harris said, noting that President Obama appointed two of the justices.
The outcome could have been different if Obama had not won the presidency in 2008, Harris said, and the ruling should spur people to vote.
“This is a time more than ever that I think Christians must be engaged and involved in the electoral process and choosing leaders that will truly be reflective of the values and principles they hold dear,” Harris said.
While gay marriage opponents are regrouping from their setback, advocates are preparing for more battles despite their recent victory.
Gay people aren’t protected from workplace discrimination in the same way that racial minorities and women are legally protected, said Mike Meno, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
“Unfortunately, marriage doesn’t solve everything” for gay people, Meno said. “We’re still a state where a same-sex couple can get married on the weekend. And then if they go to work on Monday and put a picture of their wedding on their desk, they can get fired.”
The ACLU is also monitoring the recently enacted Senate Bill 2. This law allows some government employees who have a religious objection to gay marriage or other unions, such the marriages of interracial couples or divorced people, to opt out of providing marriage services for anyone.
As of Thursday, at least 14 magistrates across the state have used this law to recuse themselves from marriage officiating job duties. Figures for assistant registers of deeds, who issue marriage licenses, were unavailable.
No magistrates or assistant registers have recused themselves in Cumberland County.
The recusal law could make it hard for couples to get married in rural counties that have a small number of employees to issue licenses or officiate marriage ceremonies, said Meno said.
The ACLU is asking any couples who encounter difficulty getting married because of the law to contact the organization, he said.
While gay marriage opponents cast about for hope and options, society is changing in favor of acceptance of gay people, said Chris Sgro, executive director of the Equality NC gay rights organization.
Support for change
Gallup found that nationally, 60 percent of the public supports gay marriage this year, up from 27 percent in 1996. Opposition switched from 68 percent in 1996 to 37percent this year.
The Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans in 2001 opposed gay marriage. This year, it said 57 percent think it should be legal.
“I do not really think that there is going to be a substantial backlash in the wake of the ruling,” Sgro said.
“I think that this differs from Roe v. Wade. And I think that you’re going to see public opinion, which has already shifted very, very quickly in favor of marriage equality, is going to continue to shift in North Carolina and other parts of the country in favor of marriage equality.
“And it’s not going to be palatable for legislators to have any sort of sustained attack on the gay community,” Sgro said.
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