RALEIGH, N.C. — The widow of a lawmaker who was the driving force behind a gay marriage referendum on next month's ballot in North Carolina told thousands of conservative Christians it's now up to them to get people to the polls to change the state constitution.
Mary Frances Forrester and other conservative leaders asked participants at the Return America rally to work to protect the supremacy of traditional marriage from potential court challenges. Gay marriages are now granted in six states and the District of Columbia. Two more states — Maryland and Washington — have authorized them but licenses have not yet been issued.
Forrester, wife of the late Sen. Jim Forrester, asked women in the audience to recruit others to vote for the amendment leading up to the May 8 primary. The early voting period began Thursday.
"You are responsible for nine other women that you can make sure go to the polls and vote and better still vote early because this is the time and you are here 'for such a time is this,'" said Forrester, making a reference to a verse in the Book of Esther.
State Capitol Police estimated the crowd in downtown Raleigh at about 3,000, as churches and Christian schools bused in members and students to the Halifax Mall.
The Rev. Ron Baity, president of Return America and pastor of a Winston-Salem church, recalled that the group had held three previous rallies on the mall pleading with lawmakers for a referendum.
"I am grateful that the people of North Carolina on May 8 now will have the opportunity, as it should be," Baity said. "Most importantly, we are back here today to uphold the historical truth that ... God said that marriage is between one man and one woman."
Jim Forrester sought for years to persuade legislators to consider a statewide referendum, but the Legislature's Democratic majority blocked the bills. Less than two months before the senator died, the new Republican majority at the General Assembly agreed last September to put the amendment on the ballot.
The proposed constitutional amendment would identify traditional marriage as the only domestic legal union recognized by the state. State law, which already limits marriage to a man and a woman, won't change if the question fails, said Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager of the anti-amendment Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families.
But if it passes, Kennedy says, families of all kinds — both married and unmarried — will lose health care benefits for partners and their children and domestic violence laws will be weakened. Some business leaders have said it would damage North Carolina's reputation as a progressive place to expand their workforce.
"The other side continues to say that this is a vote on marriage," Kennedy said in an interview. "That is absolutely not true."
In a separate development this week, three Campbell University law school professors released a paper saying legal benefits and protections for all unmarried couples should remain in place as "long as those couples are not treated as having a legal status resembling marriage." Other law school professors have written papers that disagree.
Friday's rally resembled a combination evangelistic crusade and outdoor concert, as a singer's renditions of "God Bless America" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" were interspersed with preaching and explanations on the history of marriage. Rally-goers raised their hands in prayer, gave hearty "amens" and held placards supporting the amendment.
"I am very excited to get the chance to vote for the marriage amendment," said Gail Garrison, 60, a pastor's wife from Southern Pines. "We're getting so far away from the word of God ... we bring a lot of problems into our society by not sticking to those Christian values."
Dozens of pastors have also publicly opposed to the amendment, saying that it runs counter to Christian principles of justice and fairness and would harm children. Jay Bakker, the son of evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, is scheduled to headline a faith-centered rally in opposition to the amendment Sunday in Durham, which will include a march to cast early ballots.