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Purpose of Amendment One Up for Debate

A proposed amendment to the North Carolina constitution banning gay marriage and civil unions is just two sentences. But opponents of the measure say if voters approve it on May 8th, protections and benefits for unmarried couples and their children could be jeopardized. As part of our series examining the arguments over Amendment One, Isaac-Davy Aronson looks at whether a few words could change so much.

Isaac-Davy Aronson: The first sentence of the amendment reads: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized." Tami Fitzgerald is chairwoman of the pro-amendment group Vote for Marriage NC.

Tami Fitzgerald: It's clear, and I think the people of the state understand it. It's not written in legal-ese.

But Jen Jones of Equality NC says it's not that simple.

Jen Jones: There's no complete understanding of what domestic legal union means in our court system or any other state's court system.

That's true, says UNC law professor Maxine Eichner. She authored a study of the amendment. She says judges could decide that extending certain protections and benefits to unmarried couples amounts to "recognizing" unions other than heterosexual marriage.

Maxine Eichner: That is what law is about, it's about language, it's about interpreting language.

Tami Fitzgerald calls such worries "ludicrous."

Tami Fitzgerald: The second sentence of the amendment says that nothing in this section shall prohibit private parties from entering into private contracts, or courts from enforcing rights under those contracts. Health care benefits are private contracts. Wills, trusts, estate documents are all private contracts.

However, Maxine Eichner says the definition of a contract actually is narrower than most people think.

Maxine Eichner: Not any agreement between persons is a contract. So for instance you can't contract about custody, child custody. Wills are not contracts. Agreements for hospital visitation privileges are not contracts.

Why, amendment opponents ask, put language in the state constitution that's so unclear? Amendment proponents say it is clear and the opponents are fishing for hypotheticals to scare voters into voting against it.

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