The Amendment One debate at Meredith College Monday night began as “nonpartisan,” but it did not end that way.
The panel discussion quickly devolved into heated arguments about religion, family — and race.
“This was one of the most divisive events I’ve seen on the campaign trail,” said Jen Jones, communications director at Equality N.C., an organization working against the amendment.
The panelists ranged from UNC law professor Maxine Eichner, who has spoken against the amendment, to pro-amendment attorney Anthony Biller, to one of the only lesbian Baptist preachers in the South, Nancy Petty.
The audience’s opinions were as divided as the panelists’.
The front of the room, reserved for students, was mostly white, young and female. They cheered for Eichner’s arguments about the amendment denying benefits for domestic partnerships and the personal appeal by Caroline Mann, a lesbian psychology professor at Meredith College.
“I’m gay, so this is obviously very important to me, and if this goes through, it will really affect me,” said Emily Rose, a student at Meredith College.
But the rest of the first floor was dominated by members of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ — mostly black and middle-aged — and vocally opposed to same-sex unions.
Patrick Wooden, the pastor at Upper Room, was a panelist at the event who had members of his congregation present in support.
But their views reflect a larger demographic of the state: black, Democratic and opposing same-sex marriage.
According to Public Policy Polling, black voters oppose same-sex marriage and civil unions more than other groups. They are also less likely to vote for a gay candidate in an election.
But the same poll, conducted in January, found that nearly 85 percent of blacks in the state identify as Democrats — the base for votes against the amendment.
Almost three-fourths of Republicans said they would vote for the amendment, while fewer than half of Democrats said they would.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates including Walter Dalton and Bob Etheridge have come out against the amendment.
And the NAACP in North Carolina has condemned it, saying it codifies discrimination into the state constitution.
Panelists echoed the sentiment, referencing past laws against interracial marriage, hoping to frame the issue in a civil rights light.
But Wooden’s reply, redirecting the argument back to religion, showed the stronger influence for many black voters in the state.
“I’m tired of debating the difference between these,” he said. “It has never been a sin to be African-American. We are talking about behavior versus a matter of birth.”
Black Protestants, more than any other Christian group other than white evangelicals, oppose gay marriage, according to a Pew Center poll from 2011. Only 28 percent of this group supported same-sex marriage.
“It’s a foundational issue,” said audience member Carrie Harris, who goes to Upper Room.
“It’s not about excluding somebody. We love everybody, but marriage is between one man and one woman. We want to protect what is traditional and right.”
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