RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The chatter over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in North Carolina rose Tuesday as thousands of conservative Christians rallied to urge the Legislature to vote on it now that its Republican leaders are open to the idea after Democrats blocked it for years.

State Capitol Police estimated about 3,500 people participated in the marriage amendment rally behind the Legislative Building and organized by the Forsyth County-based Return America group. Visitors carried placards, American and Christian flags and listened to ministers and other speakers argue it's time for the voters to cast yes or no votes for the amendment.

North Carolina is the only Southeastern state that hasn't approved an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Thirty states have that prohibition in their state constitutions.

We're here today to protect families and make sure every child retains the right to have both a mother and a father, Bill Brooks with the North Carolina Family Policy Council told the crowd on the Halifax Mall. We're here today to preserve our right to religious freedom and our sincere belief that anything other than marriage shared between a man and a woman goes against God's design for creation.

The group's recent biennial rallies had fallen on the deaf ears of Democrats who led the General Assembly in one or both chambers for more than a century. They wouldn't consider Republican-penned amendments and were allied with gay rights groups that argue an amendment would emboss discrimination permanently into state law.

Now that the GOP won both chambers in the Legislature in November, supporters of a gay marriage ban are hopeful it will be considered. Three-fifths of the members in the House and Senate would have to approve the amendment in order for it to be on the November 2012 ballot, the date for a pair of bills that have been introduced.

About a dozen lawmakers were introduced at the rally, including two key House Republicans who said the question would be heard in the Legislature in 2011. It will get done this year, House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, told the crowd.

Earlier Tuesday, several ministers and a rabbi explained their opposition to the amendment in a separate news conference. They feared passage of an amendment would make gays, lesbians and bisexual and transgendered people second-class citizens by agreeing with the religious views of what they call a minority of citizens.

When we try to legislate one interpretation of Scripture, we undermine democracy and we are in danger of turning our state into a church, said the Rev. Stephen Shoemaker of Myers Park Baptist Church.

The Senate version of the constitutional amendment also could deny same-sex partners other benefits such as visitation rights in hospitals and health insurance, according to Ian Palmquist of the gay rights group Equality North Carolina.

Jesus was a compassionate person, and he would not have a rally outside right now, said Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, the second openly gay lawmaker elected in North Carolina history, speaking at the news conference.

The rally came three days after thousands of people attended the first OutRaleigh festival, which celebrates the area's gay and lesbian community.

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