By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina's Republican-led General Assembly is expected to take the first steps on Monday toward adding a ban on same-sex marriage to the state constitution.
North Carolina has a statute barring same-sex marriage, but it is the only state in the South that has yet to make the ban part of its constitution.
Thirty states have approved such amendments, while six states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex couples to marry.
Legislation calling for the amendment in North Carolina would place it on the November 2012 ballot. Representative Dale Folwell, a Republican from Winston-Salem and co-sponsor of the bill, said putting it before voters would end arguments about whether the state should allow gay marriage.
"Every year people campaign about this issue. It's time that we settle it," Folwell said.
Democrats and gay rights advocates are pushing to keep the proposal off a ballot. Equality North Carolina, a gay rights advocacy group, is sponsoring nine candlelight vigils statewide Monday night and a rally outside the Legislative Building on Tuesday.
The group said it also would deliver 50,000 hand-signed constituent postcards to state legislators on Monday expressing opposition to the amendment.
Ellen Greaves, a lawyer and member of the political action board of Equality NC, said the proposed amendment "would write discrimination into the constitution" and have "a chilling effect" on attracting businesses to North Carolina.
"This proposed constitutional amendment runs against the tide of history, and has become a form of hate speech," Representative Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat and House Minority Leader, said in a statement. "Modern corporations do not tolerate this kind of discrimination and neither should our state."
LEGISLATORS TO DEBATE
Republicans have made changes in the legislation to clarify that it would not bar businesses from extending benefits to the domestic partners of employees.
"The goal is not to hinder any private company from any policy they want to have," said state Senator Dan Soucek, a Republican from Boone and a principal sponsor of the amendment legislation. "I haven't seen anything credible that it's going to affect how companies treat their people."
Soucek rejected statements from amendment opponents that equate the bill to Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks in the South.
"I think there is a real fundamental difference between the civil rights of African Americans and the gay and lesbian community," he said. "You can't choose the color of your skin, but you can choose your sexual behavior."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the amendment Monday as lawmakers return to the capital for a special session to consider constitutional amendments.
Before the marriage amendment can be put before voters, the bill must first win three-fifths approval in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Republicans have a sufficient majority in the upper chamber to reach that threshold, but will need the votes of several Democrats to reach it in the House.
Democrats, with the support of Democratic Governor Bev Perdue, will try to keep their ranks in line during votes on the amendment expected this week.
Hackney, Perdue and other Democrats voted for the 1996 state law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. But now many state Democrats say attitudes toward gay rights have changed toward tolerance, and gays should be allowed to marry.
Folwell said a statewide vote would test the Democrats' argument.
"If attitudes have changed, then when it goes to the people they're going to win," he said.
'COMPLICATED' VIEW OF GAY MARRIAGE
Every state that has put a state constitutional amendment defining marriage on the ballot has seen it approved, according to the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
A poll released last week by the Democratic-leaning polling firm Public Policy Polling found what the company called a "complicated" view toward gay marriage in North Carolina.
The survey showed 61 percent of North Carolinians think gay marriage should be illegal, and 31 percent think it should be legal.
But that opposition appears to stop short of amending the state constitution. Asked how they would vote if the election was today, voters said they would reject the proposed amendment by a 55-to-30 margin.
PPP said that apparent contradiction may reflect the fact that 54 percent of North Carolinians support legally recognizing gay couples, but most do not want the word "marriage" used in the recognition.
Hackney and other Democrats say putting the same-sex marriage ban up to a vote is an effort by Republicans to draw more social conservatives to the polls in the upcoming presidential election year.
President Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008, and it is likely to be a battleground state in next year's election. The Democratic nominating convention will be held in Charlotte.
"It is part of the Republican political strategy to drive Republicans to the polls in 2012 while suppressing Democratic voting through voter ID legislation and cutbacks in early voting," Hackney said.
Folwell said that charge contradicts the Democrats' argument that the same-sex ban should be opposed as a limit on civil rights.
"You want to talk about civil rights? Who is that they don't want voting? They won't answer the question," Folwell said.
(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)