After Amendment 1, local governments weigh health insurance options | North Carolina | Indy Week
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After Amendment 1, local governments weigh health insurance options 

Wait and see. That's the muted message this week from local government leaders after the lopsided Amendment 1 vote in North Carolina last week—a vote that propelled the state's gay marriage sentiment into the national discourse.

But in the Triangle, where more than 60 percent of voters filled in the oval "against" the amendment, a number of progressive local governments offer domestic partner benefits, a practice that presumably will be illegal under the state constitution on Jan. 1, 2013.

So what's next?

"It's hard to know what to do," said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, an avowed Amendment 1 opponent who is the Orange County town's first openly gay mayor.

Kleinschmidt, an attorney, says there are many legal questions about the impact of Amendment 1, which engraves marriage between a man and a woman into the state constitution as the only recognized legal union.

Amendment opponents argued the measure would imperil domestic-partner provisions offered to straight and gay couples by local governments in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham, Greensboro and Asheville as well as counties such as Orange, Durham and Mecklenburg.

Yet N.C. House GOP leader and Amendment 1 proponent Paul Stam, R-Apex, has countered that this might not be true, suggesting governments may give workers the leeway to designate another person, regardless of marriage status, as their health insurance beneficiary.

Kleinschmidt questioned why anyone would be so confident to promise a legal resolution one way or the other.

"I have a great deal of concern about how this is going to affect our ability to treat all of our employees equally," he said. "Our staff is still working to determine what the best approach is."

In Orange County government, five workers use the county's domestic partner benefits at this time, Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier said.

Pelissier said she expects a commissioner to petition this week to research Stam's proposal.

"How can we phrase it in such a way that we offer the benefits to make sure those people now receiving benefits would not lose them?" Pelissier said. "It's not a huge number, but still it's important."

Mark Dorosin, the top vote-getter in last week's Democratic primary in Orange County, does not assume a seat on the Board of Commissioners until December, but the civil rights attorney has reaffirmed his campaign pledges opposing the amendment.

Dorosin said higher court decisions in Colorado and California indicate similar provisions clash with the federal constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

"I think the leadership (in Orange County) should take a stand that they will continue to pay the benefits," Dorosin said.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, whose town offers the benefits but has no employees enrolled, echoed those sentiments.

"My real expectation is some civil liberties groups will probably pursue some type of stay or temporary restraining order or something like that," Chilton said. "I think this constitutional amendment probably isn't going to take effect."

In neighboring Durham County, Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Page insists the question remains as to whether state leaders will intervene on the matter of the county's recognition of domestic partners.

"We stand behind that," Page said. "And not unless some kind of mandate comes from the state, will we anticipate changing that at all."

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said he expects the city attorney to address the City Council on the subject in the coming days, adding that he's unsure how many workers could be stripped of benefits in the city. "I would hope that what we put in place would still be honored," Bell said.

The picture is no less opaque in other parts of the state. In an e-mail to the Indy last week, Greensboro city spokesman Donnie Turlington compared his city's predicament to Durham's.

"I think the prevailing thought from our human resources officials is that Greensboro's benefits for employees in same-sex relationships will be unchanged," Turlington wrote. "However, the Greensboro city attorney is currently reviewing the issue and we expect to have a better understanding of any potential changes at a later date."

And in the urban reaches of Mecklenburg County—where President Obama will assume his party's presidential nomination in September—Commissioner Bill James, a longtime opponent of gay marriage, has already called for his county to strike its domestic-partner benefits following the amendment's passage.

If the amendment does force governments to withdraw the benefits, Kleinschmidt said those affected, which include a handful of workers in his town, will face an "extraordinarily difficult" financial blow. "If it's just one employee—and I know it's not that small—if it's just one, that's one family that's going to have to scramble to find ways to protect themselves," he said. "And that's plenty."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Run for coverage."

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