The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Since the May 8 vote to approve North Carolina’s Amendment One referendum, which constitutionally bars the state from recognizing as legal any marriage other than that of a man to a woman, his words still ring true. Our march toward justice for all citizens of North Carolina, for all God’s children, is incomplete.
In Judaism, a “heshbon hanefesh” is an “accounting of the soul.” The concept helps us clarify how we go forward.
Our campaign against Amendment One made significant inroads in mobilizing the support and energy of the state’s African-American community, thanks in large part to the incredible leadership of the North Carolina NAACP’s president, the Rev. William Barber. He framed the issue as one of basic civil rights, upholding the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, rather than just as an issue of marriage, and that resonated with many African-American community leaders.
In doing so, he strengthened opposition to Amendment One while acknowledging that many will, and are entitled to, have major problems with same-sex marriages. I found the shift from support of the amendment to opposition heartening.
The fight joined many committed people who worked to create a “coalition for goodness and justice.” Our dynamic group, whose members barely knew each other when we started, will continue to fight for social justice issues for all North Carolinians.
Nonetheless, the defeat was far worse than expected. The amendment passed by a whopping 21 percentage points even though polls had predicted a 10-point victory.
So what exactly went wrong?
Professor Maxine Eichner of the University of North Carolina School of Law and other experts, including family-law professors from most of the state’s law schools, detailed the possible harmful and unintended consequences of the amendment. One poll indicated that people would vote against the amendment if it were shown to harm families and children. Reliance on this information became the campaign’s strategy.
But basing a campaign on such information was a major tactical error, and several in the anti-amendment coalition tried to point this out. For two weeks prior to the referendum, amendment supporters ran an effective campaign countering Eichner’s arguments. It included call-in phone briefings with lawyers dismissing the fears raised by the professor.
The “don’t harm families” approach also was reflected in the name of the major organization against the amendment—“Protect NC Families.” The name does not say what the organization stands for and is close in name to “Focus on the Family,” a national organization that opposes recognition of gay marriage. This similarity led to confusion.
I’m also not sure that those who came from out of state to help defeat Amendment One understood the people of North Carolina. They were well meaning, but now move on to another battleground. Their record on defeating these amendments is 33 losses and one victory. Is not a strategy change warranted?
Amendment One passed overwhelmingly because of the opposition’s inability to reframe the debate from marriage and on to civil rights. Months ago some of us warned that many North Carolinians who opposed same-sex marriages would vote against the amendment if they thought it was discriminatory and denied equal protection as guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.
The response was that the argument might gain traction in Greensboro, with its unique civil-rights history (the original sit-ins occurred at the downtown Woolworth department store), but would not resonate elsewhere in the state. Opponents also worried that it would shift focus from the “don’t harm families” strategy in a way that would be harmful at the polls.
The unexpectedly high margin of defeat tells us that basing the campaign on potential harms to families was a tactical error.
A related step that Amendment One opponents should have taken was to emphasize and publicize the pronouncements of prominent conservatives and libertarians who opposed the measure. They generally based their opposition on the same civil rights argument regarding violating the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection.
Finally, the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 52 percent of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Yet a significant number are afraid that legalizing same-sex marriage would force their clergy to officiate at such marriages. Consequently, they oppose same-sex marriage laws. Once people learned that no law could ever be passed that would require a faith community or clergy member to perform such a ceremony – that would be unconstitutional—support for the legalization of same-sex marriages increased to 58 percent.
Would this amendment have passed if the campaign been managed differently? No one can be sure. Many against the amendment feel that had local people been listened to, the vote could have at least been closer.
Our next step, aside from various legal challenges, should be to convene focus groups of those who opposed Amendment One. We have to ask the serious questions and plan a new strategy.
As King wrote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Indeed, but the arc will bend only if those of us who care act wisely in our efforts to bend it.
Rabbi Fred Guttman is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.