It’s Bill Clinton versus Billy Graham in North Carolina’s vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Advocates have dispatched powerful surrogates to this newest front of the culture wars, with the former president voicing robocalls urging voters to shoot down the measure and the evangelist featured in newspaper ads backing it. It’s a big battle in a high-stakes swing state where the research triangle meets the Bible Belt, and where Barack Obama eked out a win four years ago.
While North Carolina already bans same-sex marriages, the measure voters are deciding on today would not only enshrine that ban in the state’s constitution—it also would ban civil unions and domestic partnerships, adding fuel to the fire of a likely future Supreme Court challenge.
It’s the highest profile gay-marriage ban effort since a circuit court declared California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional, thanks to the arguments advanced by the bipartisan team of Ted Olson and David Boies.
With more than a half million people casting early ballots, interest is high and polls show the measure is likely to pass. Not coincidentally, advocates of the ban have outspent opponents nearly two-to-one. And both parties will try to use the vote as a way of activating the base, both today and in the fall.
More than 20 states have enacted bans on gay marriage in their constitutions to date, while a half dozen have legalized same-sex unions, including New York via the state legislature last year. The underlying question in North Carolina is whether issues of equality and civil rights should be put to a popular vote.
While President Obama says he is ‘evolving’ on the issue, there are clear signs that the American people are evolving on marriage equality as well. As recently as 2008, a majority of Americans opposed giving equal rights to same-sex couples—now a majority support it, according to Gallup. But in general election southern swing states like North Carolina and Virginia, the issue remains contentious and could be used to alienate undecided voters with negative ads that could write themselves: “President Obama wants to fundamentally redefine the American family. Do you?”
But looking at national trends, it is clear that this is a rear-guard action, as marriage equality is gaining acceptance and especially among younger Americans. The ballot referendums on the issue keep reflecting the intensity of opposition, especially in the South. would This debate is a long way from done, but the arc of history seems clear—bending toward both freedom and equality, buoyed by a civil rights movement of our time.