RALEIGH, N.C. -- A little-known state panel got more public attention than in recent memory Thursday while deciding how to inform voters about a proposed constitutional amendment to make traditional marriage the only domestic legal union recognized in North Carolina.
The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, which meets only when an amendment is on the statewide ballot, voted for a one-page explanation in about 45 minutes - watched by a couple of dozen observers, elected officials and reporters.
The panel neither sets the language of the proposed amendment nor anything else on the May 8 ballot. Lawmakers did that last September when they agreed to let voters decide on the question that would essentially enshrine in the state constitution the current prohibition of gay marriage in North Carolina. The amendment is approved if a majority of referendum voters agree with it.
Voters will see this on the ballot: "Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."
State law requires the panel - comprised of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Attorney General Roy Cooper and George Hall, the Legislative Building's chief administrator - to prepare an explanation of the amendment. The document is provided to the media and to election boards in all 100 counties. Some counties disperse the information to the general public, Marshall said.
"Our charge is very basic for this commission," Marshall said at the start of the meeting. "We write an explanation in simple, clear language of the proposed amendment ... We're not here to debate the pros and cons of the proposed amendment. The amendment is already written, and nothing we do here today will change one single word of it."
The debate was left afterward to representatives of groups lobbying for and against the amendment, which provided some proposed language to the panel before the meeting. Marshall said there were about ten drafts. The final product didn't appear to satisfy either side.
Although the explanation points out a 1996 state law already makes same-sex marriage invalid in North Carolina, pro-amendment advocates argue it should have gone further.
"Nowhere in it does it say that the main purpose of the amendment is to preserve the current definition of marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman," said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the committee leading the pro-amendment Vote FOR Marriage NC.
Alex Miller, co-chairman of the anti-amendment Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, said it should have pointed out more clearly the negative results upon domestic violence laws, child custody agreements and end-of-life directives if the amendment is approved. Instead, the explanation says, the courts ultimately would decide the effect and the extent to which private contracts could be enforced to offer benefits to unmarried people.
It also leaves out completely that local governments could no longer offer benefits to domestic partners of their employees, Miller said.
"It's unfortunate that wasn't made clear in this explanation," Miller said.
Marshall said the public meeting wasn't a public hearing so no suggestions were taken from the audience.
The last constitutional amendment occurred in November 2010, when voters agreed to bar convicted felons from becoming county sheriffs. Marshall, who became secretary of state 15 years ago, said this year's amendment garnered the most interest she could remember about the panel's work.