Voters in North Carolina on Tuesday approved Amendment One, a fiercely debated and highly restrictive amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman.
The amendment not only outlaws same-sex marriage — already illegal in the state — but bans civil unions and domestic partnerships for gay or straight couples. Family law experts say it will threaten domestic partnership health benefits for local government workers and strip unmarried couples, both gay and straight, of their rights to make financial or emergency medical decisions for an incapacitated partner.
With all counties reporting, the amendment was approved, 61% to 39%.
Passage of the measure, called the Defense of Marriage Act by Republican sponsors, makes North Carolina the final state in the South to pass an amendment banning gay marriage, and the 29th state overall, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ten states have statutes defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Proponents said the amendment was needed to keep "activist judges or politicians" from overturning the state's 1996 law.
The measure is more restrictive than all but three of the marriage amendments passed in other states, according to a study published by 11 family law professors at seven North Carolina universities. The measure could even deprive unmarried women of protections against domestic abuse, while restricting child custody and visitation rights for unmarried gay or straight couples, they said.
Only Idaho, Michigan and South Carolina have so strictly defined marriage, and courts in those three states are still struggling to interpret amendments passed in recent years. The North Carolina amendment is likely to face similar court battles.
The North Carolina vote gives renewed vigor to opponents of gay marriage, who have fought attempts to legalize such unions while promoting bans on them. Six states and Washington, D.C., now grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Washington state and Maryland recently passed laws allowing same-sex marriages, but those laws have not yet taken effect.
In North Carolina, the controversial measure attracted far more primary voters than usual. Because North Carolina is an important swing state and home to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the issue has drawn national attention in the gay rights debate.
President Obama has called the amendment divisive, saying it would discriminate against gays, and former President Clinton recorded automated phone calls urging voters to reject the measure. Evangelist Billy Graham, 93, meanwhile, ran full-page newspaper ads in favor of the amendment, saying it preserves traditional marriage.
The amendment reads, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."
The ultimate effect of that language remains to be seen. "Amendment One is vaguely worded," the family law professors wrote in their analysis. "It is not possible to know how broadly it will eventually be construed."
The North Carolina secretary of state's Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission has noted "debate among legal experts" and says the courts will ultimately decide the amendment's impact on domestic violence, custody and visitation rights.
Proponents say unmarried couples will be protected by language in the measure that permits private contracts and court actions "pursuant to such contracts."
But government employment is different. A number of local governments, including those of Chapel Hill, Durham and Greensboro and the counties of Mecklenburg and Orange, now provide domestic partner insurance benefits to unmarried employees.
North Carolina has 222,800 unmarried couples, an increase of 55% over the last decade; 12% are same-sex couples, according to the 2010 census.
Officials at most local governments offering domestic partner benefits have indicated they will retain them despite the amendment. But they are likely to face lawsuits to force compliance, said Maxine Eichner, a family law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The family law professors said the amendment would spawn years of lawsuits. "When the dust clears," they concluded, unmarried couples will "have fewer rights over their most important life decisions."