VOICES: Reflections on the passage of NC's cynical Amendment One

Rev. William Barber: "We can't stop now in the fight for equality!"

By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, President, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP

For 103 years the NAACP has fought for equal rights for all people. We have always fought against laws that would codify discrimination, hate and division. This is why we said “Vote Against the Far Right's Trick Amendment One” on yesterday’s ballot.

In North Carolina, we’ve been building a Movement over the past seven years based on a simple idea: The same forces attempting to cut public education and pass private school vouchers are attacking workers’ rights. The same folks ignoring the poor and catering to the wealthy are also attempting to pass voter photo ID bills, which are nothing more than modern Jim Crow laws. The people trying to roll back equal protection under the law for all are the same ones trying to poison the environment. The groups trying to repeal NC’s historic Racial Justice Act are the same ones trying to deny poor people healthcare. This was the basis of our coalition.

Out of this idea, over 125 progressive organizations have now come together in coalition and solidarity around an anti-racism/discrimination, anti-poverty and anti-militarism legislative agenda. So when the ultra-conservatives re-focused their campaign against the LGBT community’s rights and protections, a coalition led by the NC NAACP was already there to rally together against discrimination and hate in our Constitution.

The NAACP does not have a position on same sex marriage. But we have always held a strong position against laws and constitutional provisions that take away rights of minorities. This Amendment authorizes the government to take legal action in matters of personal conscience. It defines a marriage between a man and a woman as "the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state." By upgrading the state's existing law against same-sex marriage to a constitutional ban, the Amendment can be used as a basis to prohibit state recognition of other unions, including civil unions and the domestic partnerships now offered to public employees in some municipalities.

Constitutional amendments almost always expand the rights of people against the power of the State. This has been the noble historical trend of constitutional amendments in America. We prohibited slavery. We stopped Jim Crow. We expanded the right to vote for freed slaves, for women, for young people. This is the first such discriminatory amendment placed in the NC Constitution since an amendment in 1875 that outlawed interracial marriage. This trick Amendment reverses the noble trend of constitutional amendments. It curtails family rights. It places a matter of conscience and personal belief in the hands of the state. It sets a precedent to allow a majority to vote to curtail the rights of a minority.

This cynical Amendment was hatched in the backrooms of right wing extremist think tanks, organized and funded by billionaire right-wing corporations and foundations. As African Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities carefully build progressive alliances with white workers and other progressives to improve the lives of the 99%, the right-wing strategists decided to use Jesse Helms' old "wedge" issue. One of the right-wing think tanks, the National Organization for Marriage, said in a document recently released by the courts, the aim of the Amendment was to "drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies."

The NAACP understands that issues of marriage rights for same-sex couples are a sensitive issue for many families. People of goodwill have heartfelt differences of opinion about it. We respect these differences. That is exactly why the government has no business taking away the rights of some, because others don't like them. The forces behind this amendment want North Carolinians to vote to prohibit people, families and faith congregations from making this highly personal decision. The authors of Amendment One want to place a matter of conscience and personal belief in the hands of the state. We believe firmly in the constitutional right of faith communities to determine whom they will and will not marry. The Government has no business in these decisions.  

Amendment One has implications far beyond the rights of lesbian and gay people to make a long-term legal commitment to each other. Its language is so vague it could be interpreted to snatch existing protections against domestic violence for unmarried women in North Carolina, limiting such protections to only married women. In Ohio, a similar amendment set batterers free and put unmarried domestic violence victims at risk. It could cause children of unmarried parents to lose health and prescription insurance. It could be used to remove a child from her loving parent. It could threaten thousands of existing custody and visitation legal agreements. Many would oppose these drastic changes if they knew about them. Amendment One slips them in nearly unseen.  

The real insult to African Americans and other religious people of color is that the same regressive forces behind this amendment are the same people who rushed bill after bill through the legislature, sometimes after midnight, to roll back our voting rights, our educational rights, our civil rights and our constitutional rights. Their purpose has been made abundantly clear. They want to undermine the constitutional role of government to operate for the good of the whole, provide equal protection under the law and ensure liberty and justice for all. 

We just returned from the Third Leg of our Truth and Hope, Putting a Face on Poverty Tour in NC. We heard stories and saw scenes of deep despair and hopelessness in every part of our state. The issues of joblessness, homelessness, hunger, sickness and despair have multiplied in the past six years, since Wall Street's bundles collapsed. Did the far right join with the growing new progressive coalition to address these basic human needs of our people? No. They placed on the ballot a Trick Amendment to distract all of us from dealing with the problems of poverty, and to force progressives to fight off another effort to take away family rights.

The troubling nature of the vote last night is that North Carolinians were led by the divisive National Organization for Marriage and other organizations affiliated with groups identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, such as the Family Research Council, to vote on a Trick Amendment that now places hate, discrimination and division in our Constitution. This is an amendment that violates the fundamental protections of equal protection under the law and sets up the precedent of majorities voting on the rights on minorities. Furthermore, this was done in a way that will hurt children and unmarried couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, under the watch of a ultra-conservative leadership in the NC General Assembly that has refused to address real issues of unemployment, educational equality, poverty, and voting rights, which we all know will devastate the families and future of our State.

Though Amendment One passed, I was led yesterday to say to a group of allies from the LGBT rights community, among whom included Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty, an openly lesbian pastor who has gone to jail with us fighting the far right’s effort to re-segregate Wake County’s 140,000 students, these words:

Regardless of how the vote turns out, I want each of you to know that I love and respect you as friends, brothers and sisters in the cause of justice. Never have I been prouder than to stand with you, connecting the dots of injustice and raising the call for a just society. We have stood tall and history will record that. We did not bow to wrong and history will record that. We have learned from each other and the Movement will be even stronger in the days to come. My faith teaches me that Truth ultimately rises and love will conquer hate. And the Psalmist reminds us all: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Yours in deep commitment to justice as we stay together even after tomorrow to keep building a Movement that respects and values all humanity as God’s unique and special creation!

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Image of Rev. Dr. Barber speaking at a rally against Amendment One at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. is a still from this NAACP video: