During the debate over whether North Carolina should add an anti-same-sex marriage amendment to its state constitution, there have been many articles in the News & Observer, many letters to the editor, many opinion pieces. I found two fascinating stories that provide some historical context in which to view the debate.
The first article ran April 19 and was by Patrick O’Neil, an assistant professor of history at Methodist University in Fayetteville.
In response to claims that the definition of marriage should not be changed because it has been the foundation of society throughout history, Professor O’Neil demonstrates that indeed North Carolina itself has made fundamental changes to marital tradition, including that of coverture. In 1868, North Carolina passed the Married Women’s Property Act, allowing women to retain ownership of property they brought to marriage.
It’s an interesting history and O’Neil takes no position on the current debate. He simply points out that our ancestors did not consider marriage a sacred cow.
The second article ran May 5 and was by Gene Nichol, the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC’s Law School.
Nichol describes how almost all constitutional alterations (Prohibition was an exception) fall into three categories:
- they outline foundational liberties,
- they restructure government powers and processes, or
- they extend rights of membership and participation to new frontiers.
North Carolina’s Amendment One on the May 8 ballot does none of these things.
This isn’t the first time North Carolina has used the state’s guiding document as a way to enshrine discrimination.
In 1875, North Carolina altered its charter to declare that “all marriages between a white person and a Negro or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the third generation inclusive are, hereby, forever prohibited.”
Both articles are well worth the read.
On May 8, let’s hope we end up on the right side of history.