The WFAE forum – Defining Marriage – It showed the need for more education

On Thursday night, March 29th, at Spirit Square in Charlotte, WFAE held a forum on Amendment One.  The intentions were good, but something wasn’t right.

The first thing I noticed that gave me concern was the title selected for the discussion: “Defining Marriage”.   This is what supporters of Amendment One want the public to believe the amendment is about, defining marriage.  Unfortunately, the amendment is about much, much more.

WFAE inadvertently played right into the hands of the supporters of Amendment One with the title it selected.  The title kept the discussion mostly where supporters want it to be, on the topic of gay marriage.

If Amendment One was only about defining marriage between one man and one woman, we would be voting on an amendment like Proposition 8 in California and Question One in Maine; specifically, whether the marriage of one man and one woman shall be the only legally recognized “marriage” in this state.  That was the language of the original bill in NC, but it was changed to go much further.  It was changed to provide that the marriage of one man and one woman shall be the only “domestic legal union” recognized in this state, a term not defined in NC law.

The attorney presenter tried to focus on the “domestic legal union” language, but the non-attorney presenter ignored it.  Many in the audience never seemed to care about it.  They were more focused on marriage between gays and the so-called gay lifestyle in general.  This again, played right into the hands of the supporters.

I was sitting next to a woman who was one of the first to speak at the microphone.  It was all too staged.  I know this now because before the event started, she asked me to take her picture with the non-attorney presenter, the one whose whole presentation was about how gay marriage is hurtful to society.  They put their arms around each other, and I snapped the picture.  When she spoke at the microphone, it was about marriage.

Late in the forum, I got a chance to make a comment.  I tried to focus the panel and the audience on the “domestic legal union” language in the bill, but it was too little too late.  When I sat down, the woman next to me (the same one whose picture I had taken) leaned over and said: “You know, this bill uses the same language as the amendment bill in Idaho”.  I told her I knew that and I also knew that one purpose of the “domestic legal union” language is to prevent civil unions, to which she responded, “that’s just a substitute for marriage”.  She then said “they” will “just try to get civil unions first and then come after marriage next”.   Her use of the word “they” did not go unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the non-attorney presenter kept the conversation away from civil unions, probably because polls have shown that a majority in NC would approve such unions, as long as it is not called marriage.  Ironically, such unions provide much of the stability that he was promoting caused by marriage in general.

This almost singular focus at the forum on  gay marriage and the so-called gay lifestyle in particular was frustrating for an attorney like myself, because there are legal rights at stake here and Amendment One is a proposed amendment to the constitution.  As I tried to point out, constitutions are meant to protect minorities, not force the religious or moral will of the majority on others.

My search in this blog has been for the truth about the amendment as a whole, not about the single issue of gay marriage.  While the lawyer on the panel tried to broaden the discussion beyond gay marriage, the other panelist kept his remarks almost solely on his talking point — gay marriage — and it worked.  His inflammatory comments suckered the audience into talking about what he wanted to discuss.

The problem with the gay marriage debate is that people want to debate religion and morals.  That is a debate that cannot be won or lost and it was clear in the audience participation.

The same is true about the so-called gay lifestyle.  People have strong opinions about it.  For example, we heard from the man who refuses to rent homes to such fornicators and to the person who is concerned about taking showers in the military with gay men.  We also listened to the non-attorney presenter tell us how the gay lifestyle is a behavior (and an improper one at that) and hear his comments about “former gays”, implying that there is a cure for this “behavior” just around the corner.

And when we did get close to the subject of civil rights, we heard from the black woman who was mad at gays for trying to claim “civil rights” protections, because she believes that black people suffered more and own those rights.  This is a debate that has risen up in the past and black people of stature have condemned it as shameful and self-serving.  But not the panelist who is supporting Amendment One.  That is just another vote for his side.

Another concern I had with this forum was that it matched a faith-based perspective against an attempt to have a discussion about legal issues and legal harms.  It is one thing to debate faith against faith, social issue against social issue, political issue against political issue, moral issue against moral issue or legal issue against legal issue, but it is quite another thing to match a one-sided faith-based position against a legal discussion in a room full of people who mostly want to talk about their faith, moral and social based opinions (whether or not those opinions have anything to do with Amendment One).

So I commend WFAE for making the effort, but I could see in the face of the moderator and in the faces of some staff members that they had lost control of the discussion.  This forum may not have been what they had in mind.  There was a lot more pontificating going on in this discussion than educating.

I don’t fault the non-attorney presenter for what he did.  His position was well-known before he arrived, and he stuck to his script.

I don’t fault the attorney presenter.  He tried to take some complex legal issues and boil them down.  The problem was that the legal issues were not nearly as spicy as the issues of religion and the so-called gay lifestyle.

And I don’t fault WFAE.  It gave people a chance to talk, and “boy, howdy”, they did, on everything under the sun, prompting the moderator at one point to say, “what does that have to do with Amendment One?”

At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of all of us to understand the full implications of what we are voting on when we go to the polls on May 8th.

If voters know they will be hurting gay people, their children and heterosexuals as well, both financially and otherwise, and they decide to vote for the amendment because it is more important to them to “preserve traditional marriage”, then there is little we can do.

However, if voters think they are voting only on gay marriage (which already is illegal in NC) without knowing that more is involved, including actual and possible legal harms that are caused by the particular language of this amendment, then shame on me and the rest of us for not doing a better job of educating them.

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