Christina Holder, Durham Herald-Sun
DURHAM – The ballot referendum that could cement the definition of marriage as “the only domestic legal union” into the state Constitution has turned a political debate into a religious one — and is mustering people of faith across North Carolina to the polls.
North Carolina law already does not recognize same-sex and common law marriages. The passing of the amendment — known as the “Marriage Protection Amendment” to supporters and “Amendment One” to opponents — would make this definition of marriage between “one man and one woman” part of constitutional law.
Many religious institutions across the state are rallying parishioners. Some are hoping to preserve what they see as traditional marriage — vulnerable to judicial challenges without a definition in the state Constitution. Others are hoping to protect the rights of North Carolinians who may be harmed if courts interpret the amendment in such a way that it bars unmarried couples from protections in areas such as domestic violence, child custody and end-of-life care.
“I consider this part of prophetic ministry,” said the Rev. Deborah Cayer, lead pastor at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Church in Durham, who personally opposes the amendment. “What are right ways for us to be together, right ways for us to live together? I think those are very moral issues.”
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, who supports the amendment, said he sees discussion of the marriage amendment as a part of his ministry, as well.
Catholicism upholds the idea of engaging faithful citizenship, Burbidge said, and he has used the momentum of the debate to remind Catholics that while the church loves all people, it views marriage as a sacramental covenant between one man and one woman.
“It is essential that you bring your voice into the public arena and that you form your conscience,” he said.
Activating the pulpit
As discussion about the marriage amendment has swelled in North Carolina, clergy and parishioners in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have transformed fellowship halls into phone banking headquarters to encourage community members to vote. They have held educational classes to inform community members of the amendment details and have organized panel discussions with area lawyers and theologians to discuss the potential outcomes of the amendment.
The website of Chapel Hill Kehillah synagogue has a “Vote Against Amendment 1” link that directs readers to literature about the potential legal effects the proposed amendment could have on North Carolinians who do not fit the state’s definition of marriage. In addition, the synagogue also hosted a forum in February for community members to learn more about the amendment.
“We’ve got to fight it,” Rabbi Jennifer Feldman said. “We must stand on the side of human rights and respect committed, loving relationships and the needs of the families and children. The state is supposed to protect the rights of families and children.”
Conley J. Bordeaux, Sr., pastor of Gorman Baptist Church in Durham, is helping to coordinate the distribution of “Vote for Marriage” signs in his community. He said people from Granville and Person counties — about 40 miles away — have traveled to his church to pick up one of more than 1,400 signs he has stored and given away from his church base.
“People are coming in here left and right picking up signs,” he said. “There’s a tremendous interest.”
Partnerships with area nonprofit organizations also are making it possible for religious institutions to make their political impact on their surrounding communities potentially stronger.
Vote FOR Marriage NC, the main pro-amendment group in the state, released a “kit for pastors,” according to its website, to help clergy engage their congregations.
The kit leads clergy through steps for encouraging their laity to cast ballots at early voting polling sites that opened Thursday, organizing a phone bank to mobilize surrounding community members and even preaching a sermon April 29, which they have named “Marriage Sunday.”
“We are doing this because we have been asked by the churches … they have a need,” said Rachel Lee, communications director for Vote FOR Marriage NC, who said her organization has been working with more than 6,000 churches across the state.
The North Carolina Council of Churches, a nonprofit organization that works with congregations and interfaith entities statewide to promote issues of social and economic justice, partnered with the Coalition to Protect ALL NC Families, a network of local and state faith, human rights and nonpartisan groups, to produce a toolkit for religious groups that oppose the amendment.
Similar to the ideas in the toolkit of Vote FOR Marriage NC — but with a different message — the toolkit encourages clergy to mobilize their congregants through voter registration, phone banks and other avenues such as writing letters to the editor of their community’s newspaper.
George Reed, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, said that part of the council’s involvement in the activation of religious institutions has been to educate clergy on the legal limits of their campaign involvement so that they can participate without fear of losing their Internal Revenue Service tax-exempt status, called the 501(c)(3) status.
“Churches generally cannot get involved in electoral politics,” Reed said. “But the ballot amendment initiatives are a different breed.”
Following the rules
The Internal Revenue Service grants religious institutions such as churches and synagogues as well as charities and universities a tax-exempt status based upon their compliance with a set of stringent rules.
Religious institutions can take a stand on legislative issues as long as their lobbying efforts do not consume a “substantial” part of their institutional budgets and as long as they do not endorse a specific political candidate.
But what constitutes the IRS’s definition of “substantial” often is blurry.
“You cannot be partisan,” said the Rev. Richard Edens of United Church of Chapel Hill. “But you can be political. … What really affects local churches is this tightrope of what is partisan and what is not. A lot of the issues can feel like they belong to one party or another.”
Joseph Conn, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that historically a religious institution that spends anywhere between 5 percent and 20 percent of its budget on lobbying efforts might trigger the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service.
But religious institutions are likely to breathe easily as they move into the pending weeks of amendment advocacy.
“It’s very unlikely that most church budgets would be spending that much on this referendum,” Conn said.
Nonprofit groups aiding religious institutions in their campaigns for and against the amendment are encouraging religious leaders to keep their involvement under 5 percent.
Reed said the sheer number of faith groups involved in the amendment debate and partnering with one another may have lessened any fears of violating IRS rules.
North Carolinians have until May 8 to vote on the amendment, but the polls for early voting opened on Thursday.