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North Carolina Remains Outlier In Southern States' Gay Marriage Debate

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- From Texas to Virginia, the South has spoken with almost one voice on same-sex marriage, amending state constitutions to ban the practice in hopes of blocking court decisions that would allow gays and lesbians to marry.

It's "almost" one voice because there's a discordant note in the Southern choir.

North Carolina, which likes to distinguish itself as a "vale of humility" surrounded by more bombastic neighbors, is the last state in the region without such an amendment. That fact is repeated constantly in the debate over a May 8 referendum when voters will have a chance to change the situation. But while it's bandied about by both sides, it's less clear what the distinction means.

Is it simply because the North Carolina Democrats who controlled the Legislature until 2010 had no interest in putting the amendment up for a vote? Or does it reflect the history and outlook of a state where leaders shepherded desegregation into law during the 1960s with little of the violence that broke out elsewhere?

Both explanations have merit in a state where Republicans waited nearly 140 years to take full control of the General Assembly and in which the political careers of moderate Democrat Jim Hunt and conservative Republican stalwart Jesse Helms could flourish at the same time, thanks to some of the same voters.

"North Carolina is an ambivalent state," said Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. "It's got very strong conservative instincts, and it's got very strong liberal instincts. It's one of the things that's peculiar about Tar Heel politics that voters can go either way depending on the issue or the politician."

Raleigh resident Molly Beavers, 25, whose front lawn is adorned with a sign urging voters to reject the amendment, summed up that paradox in contemporary politics.

"In some ways I feel like we've made a lot of progress and I know we voted as a state for (Barack) Obama in 2008, which was a big deal," she said. "But now our state Legislature's kind of gone the other way."

The state will be front and center in September, when Charlotte hosts the Democratic National Convention at which President Obama is nominated for a second term.

Missouri became the first U.S. state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage in August 2004, less than a year after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that that state's constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. The first Southern state to impose a constitutional ban was Louisiana, voting a month after Missouri. They were followed in November by Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and others outside the region.

By the end of 2008, every state in the South had an amendment except North Carolina. West Virginia also lacks a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that state – which was created when it broke away from the rest of Virginia to fight alongside the Union in the Civil War – culturally shares as much or more with Rust Belt neighbors like Ohio and Pennsylvania as with Dixie.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley recently signed legislation legalizing gay marriage, but opponents are seeking to overturn the law through a ballot vote.

In North Carolina, there's little doubt the immediate reason for the absence of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is that Democrats controlled the General Assembly until 2010. A bill that would amend the constitution was first introduced in May 2004 and in every subsequent session. While the party includes many social conservatives, each time the issue arose, the Democratic leadership made sure it stayed bottled up in committee.

"It hasn't passed here because it wasn't on the ballot, and it wasn't on the ballot because Democrats in the leadership had no interest in seeing it on the ballot," said Gary Pearce, who worked for Hunt, the former four-term Democratic governor.

That's all that needs to be said on the subject, according to Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Vote FOR Marriage NC, the coalition leading support of the amendment.

"It's entirely political," she said. "The problem is that the legislative leadership wanted to keep voters with strong beliefs on social issues away from the polls."

But the very fact of such tenacious Democratic control, though it ended two years ago, shows how North Carolina differs from most of its Southern counterparts, Pearce said. While Republicans have come to dominate Southern politics over the last 30 years, North Carolina still elects Democratic senators, governors, state lawmakers – and, in 2008, gave its 15 electoral votes to Obama, who condemned the proposed amendment last week.

That's the context stressed by opponents of the amendment. The Coalition to Protect All NC Families, the main group rallying opposition to the amendment, also points to ties with the NAACP and endorsements from business executives, town governments and hundreds of members of the clergy as signs North Carolina is not like its neighbors on this issue.

"You wouldn't see this happening in another Southern state," said Jeremy Kennedy, the group's campaign manager.

North Carolina's civil rights history is one of the themes regularly invoked by opponents of the measure. The bombings, mob violence and official defiance of desegregation that marked states like Mississippi and Alabama were largely absent from North Carolina, where then-Gov. Luther Hodges and other leaders courted business development by promising North Carolina would remain free of the chaos erupting elsewhere.

"It's fair to say that North Carolina has been seen as more progressive or at least more moderate, even if the reputation and the reality haven't always matched," said James Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity."

Whether North Carolina remains an outlier in the South will be up to voters on May 8, when immediate circumstances, including a contested Republican presidential primary, could help determine the outcome more than more abstract factors.

"I think the chances of it passing are pretty strong here," said Pearce, veteran of numerous North Carolina elections. "It's a tough issue for any Southern state, even one that's more progressive than the others."

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Associated Press writer Allen Breed contributed to this report from Wake Forest.

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