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Gay Marriage Amendment Focus Of Forum

WFAE's Mark Rumsey discusses the political debate over the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage, and the challenges in organizing a community forum on the issue. The forum, tonight at 7, is part of WFAE's Public Conversations series. In less than six weeks, North Carolina voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would prevent the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Where voters stand on the issue is tough to gauge. Poll results have been mixed. For example, an Elon Univeristy/Charlotte Observer poll last month found that 54 percent of voters oppose the amendment. Another statewide poll released last week shows 58 percent support the amendment. WFAE will host a Public Conversation on the marriage amendment Thursday evening. Mark Rumsey has been organizing the community forum and following the debate on the issue of gay marriage. The following is a conversation he had with WFAE's Scott Graf. Scott: It seems like the debate surrounding the proposed marriage amendment is really starting to pick up: Mark: Yes, it has. More groups are speaking out on the issue. Press conferences and rallies are being held, and some local governments are taking stands. Mecklenburg County commissioners have not put the issue to a vote, but the Lincoln, Stanly and Union County commissions have passed resolutions in support of the amendment. City governments in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro have taken positions against the amendment, as has Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. President Obama has also weighed in. A spokesman says the president is against the marriage amendment because it would, "single out and discriminate against committed gay and lesbian couples". Scott: What about the statewide coalitions that are working for and against the amendment. What are we hearing from them? Mark: Well, there are two major coalitions or "umbrella groups" that are campaigning on both sides of this issue, and they actually have similar-sounding names. The coalition that supports the amendment is called "Vote for Marriage NC". The other group, which opposes the amendment, is called "The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families" (or "ALL" N.C. families, as their website also states). The pro-amendment coalition is focusing its efforts on some of the more-conservative and evangelical churches. A focal point of that effort in Charlotte is First Baptist Church, uptown. The pastor there, Mark Harris, is also president of the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina. Earlier this month, Harris brought national gay marriage opponent Tony Perkins to First Baptist for a Sunday sermon. During his message, Perkins said "every Bible-believing Christian in North Carolina" should support the marriage amendment (and, he also said this): Perkins: "God defines marriage. It is not for us to redefine. Even when we got to voting booth, and we cast a vote on the Marriage Amendment #1 here in North Carolina, we are not defining marriage. God already defined it. Who are we to think we can define it?" Mark: Perkins heads the Family Research Council. His group partnered with the Heritage Foundation in sponsoring what they called a "Values Bus" parked outside the church. Organizers were in the church lobby, registering people to vote. Scott: But, Mark, religious leaders are not unified in support for the marriage amendment, right? Mark: Oh, that's absolutely right. Many religious leaders in Charlotte have been speaking out against the amendment. This week, a coalition of about 30 interfaith clergy held a press conference Uptown. This group includes Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist and Jewish leaders. Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El was among those who said a constitutional ban on gay marriage would be harmful to many people including those who are in domestic partnerships: "We are clergy who seek to protect families. Amendment 1 leaves families of domestic partnerships unprotected. We are clergy who work to ensure all our same - women, children and men. Amendment 1 leaves familes in non-traditional marriages and partnerships unsafe," Schindler said. But that event also showed the religious divide on this issue. Several demonstrators, citing biblical passages, disrupted the event and shouted their support for the marriage amendment. Scott: Mark, what about the "mega-churches" in Charlotte... those large non-denominational churches that have become very popular? Are they speaking out on same-sex marriage? Mark: Well, Scott, that's an interesting question. I contacted the largest of those churches, Elevation Church, to see if I could talk with the pastor about the amendment. The response that I got via e-mail was that the pastor, Steven Furtick, was busy preparing for upcoming Easter services, and wouldn't be available to speak with me. I pressed a little, and was told that Furtick hasn't said anything publicly on the amendment issue. Now, Elevation makes no secret of its theologically conservative approach - but the church is also committed to reaching the "un-churched" - so I think they're being very careful about stepping on toes. I did speak with the pastor of another non-denominational, evangelical church. (and) He told me that he didn't feel it would be wise to go 'on the record' regarding the marriage amendment, in light of what he described as his congregation's, quote "ministry.. to the homosexual community." Scott: Any other insights from your work on this issue, about what strategies the pro and anti-amendment forces are using? Mark: Well, in organizing tomorrow night's Public Conversations event, it has seemed clear that the pro-amendment coalition - Vote for Marriage NC - has little or no interest in participating in community forums of this nature. I contacted the coalition's spokesperson early on and was told that they are busy taking their message to churches - where they expect to "win" the May 8 vote - and could not commit to sending a representative to our event. The anti-amendment coalition, on the other hand, has been more responsive. A spokesperson for "Protect N.C. Families" reached out to me and indicated that this group plans to have someone at Thursday's forum here in Charlotte. Scott: And Mark, what should people expect at WFAE's Public Conversation on this topic tomorrow evening? Well, this is a free community forum, so everyone's invited. I want to stress that we've worked hard to get the word out to both amendment supporters, and opponents. We'll have a panelist representing both sides of the debate. Christian speaker, author and gay marriage opponent Frank Turek of Charlotte will argue in favor of the amendment. Scott Sigman, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law, will argue against the marriage amendment. We'll also take lots of questions and comments from the audience, with WFAE's Julie Rose facilitating the discussion. Thank you, Mark. ... Thank you, Scott That Public Conversation begins this evening at 7 p.m. at Spirit Square's McGlohon Theater.