Now that North Carolina voters have passed Amendment One, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James is looking for a change.
James, a Republican who has been on the board since 1996, is calling for the termination of the county’s health insurance policy that provides domestic partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships.
“I recall when the Democrats on the Commission forced the issue and added these benefits for homosexuals that a number of legal experts said it was illegal then – including the City attorney,” James wrote in an email to County Manager Harry Jones the day after Amendment One passed.
“Prior to the vote most scholars (left and right) said that Amendment One would eliminate local faux ‘marriage’ benefits for homosexual employees. I would cite them but you know them all too well.”
Like members of the amendment’s opposition movement feared, James and others now claim that the amendment’s broad language stating “marriage between one man and one woman… the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized” means the county’s health insurance policy is now illegal.
Mecklenburg County Attorney Marvin Bethune said he and other county employees are still in the process of researching the policy’s legality.
“There is a minimal amount of case law from other jurisdictions on similar issues, but it’s not exactly the same,” he said. “At this point in time, I’m not sure we’re ready to make any news.”
The earliest that researchers could report back to the board is Aug. 14, Bethune said.
Mecklenburg County is one of seven jurisdictions in the state that currently offers benefits to couples in homosexual domestic partnerships.
The Charlotte City Council was scheduled to begin offering similar benefits in mid-May but has since put off implementing the plan until state Attorney General Roy Cooper answers the council’s request for an opinion on the matter.
No matter what opinion Cooper gives, attorney Zachary Setzer, who practices family law in Monroe, said finding the legal standing to challenge the amendment in court may be difficult.
According to Setzer, the most likely candidate capable of proving harm by these benefit policies is a taxpayer claiming financial harm. Still, this standing is limited.
“The Attorney General of North Carolina may be the only person who could bring the suit, which makes it into a political issue all over again,” he said.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, North Carolina’s fifth openly gay elected official who also works as an attorney, said he doesn’t expect the Charlotte City Council to hear anything before it sets its budget.
“Even if the attorney general does come up with an answer, it’s going to be his best guess because it’s not the attorney general who tells us what the law means, it’s the courts,” he said.
In the meantime, Kleinschmidt said that like Durham, Carrboro and Orange County, Chapel Hill will not unilaterally stop providing the benefits it offers to homosexual employees in domestic partnerships.
“If someone were to sue us, that would create the test,” he said. “We’re going to stick to our guns and treat our employees equally until we’re told otherwise.”