Saving marriage in North Carolina hinged on individual courage and a rock-solid alliance
Gravely ill as he was, Dr. Jim Forrester knew a last chance when he saw one.
In the fall of 2010, something happened in his beloved North Carolina that hadn’t happened since Reconstruction—Republicans were voted into control of the state legislature. That political sea change turned all kinds of tides in every committee of both houses; bills sinking to forgotten depths suddenly popped to the surface again.
One of those bills was Forrester’s. For eight years, as a state senator, he’d introduced it again and again, only to watch it languish through the deliberate disdain of various committee chairmen. The bill proposed an amendment to the state constitution, to be voted on by the people of North Carolina, defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman.
The bill faced enormous, entrenched political opposition from nearly every major player in the state—academics, celebrities, a sizeable number of clerics, all the major media, and powerful legislators on both sides of the aisle. Worse, it faced mostly apathy from the people whose votes would be crucial to its success.
Forrester was dying. His bill, they told him, was doomed.
He refused to accept that. Instead, he quietly launched what quickly became one of the most critical battles of the decade-long war for marriage in America. It was a battle with implications far beyond North Carolina—one whose outcome would hinge on the power of prayer and the herculean efforts of a small, persevering group of Christian leaders.
This is the story of that battle. This is the proof of what an alliance can do.
"If we can get this to the people, the people will vote for it. Dr. Jim Forrester
A family physician, decorated flight surgeon, and 11-term senator in the state legislature, Forrester successfully sponsored a 1995 statute defining marriage—but he knew activist judges could and would find ways around it. Only a constitutional amendment, he decided, would prevent same-sex activists from rewriting the law.
"You know, we have rights in this country," he told Mary Frances, his wife of 51 years, before he passed. "You can live with anybody you want to, you can make any kind of formal arrangements you want to, you can share any kind of property. But you can’t redefine ‘family.’ We need to love these people, but we shouldn’t let them decide something for the rest of us."
"If we can get [a marriage amendment] to the people, the people will vote for it," he said. "As long as the people send me back here, I’m going to stand up until I get my amendment."
The 2010 election changed everything. Wary of the political "hot potato," the state’s new Republican leadership called a special legislative session for September 2011 to address the amendment issue. Clearly, the vote would be close. Mrs. Forrester, state director of Concerned Women for America, asked her husband how she could help. Start making phone calls, he said.
She did more than that. Her group sent out 10,000 postcards, asking voters statewide to phone fence-straddling legislators in support of the bill. Thousands upon thousands called.
But those favoring the measure weren’t the only ones marshalling their forces. Cars began circling ominously through the Forresters’ driveway at all hours. A same-sex couple held their commitment ceremony outside his office door. The Forresters were deluged with phone calls and e-mails—many filled with obscenities, vulgarities, and death threats.
Forrester pressed on, finding allies as well as opponents. House Majority Leader Paul Stam, Speaker Pro Tempore Dale Folwell, and Senator Dan Soucek all stepped in at crucial moments. Leaders of some 20 religious groups forged a political committee, Vote FOR Marriage NC, and chose Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, to lead it. A demure, determined woman with a cheerful manner and a ready smile, she had already lobbied for the bill across seven legislative sessions.
"I clearly felt called by God to do this," she says. Confronted daily by the enormity of the task and aggressiveness of the opposition, she returned often to 2 Chronicles 20:15: "Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s."
"Let’s take up our positions," she kept telling her team. "Let’s do what God’s called us to do."
Her faith wasn’t the only advantage Fitzgerald brought to the table. She is an Alliance Defending Freedom Allied Attorney, and soon enlisted the legal ministry in helping fine-tune the language of Forrester’s bill. Senior Counsel Austin R. Nimocks took point on those efforts.
"Having attorneys who understand the subject and can advise on using different types of language to accomplish different objectives is vitally important," Nimocks says. "That’s where Alliance Defending Freedom comes into play. We’ve advised legislatures and marriage proponents across the country on language that’s appropriate for constitutional amendments, bills, and other legislative avenues to make sure they get it right."
The revisions, lobbying, phone calls, and prayers all culminated on September 12, 2011, with a slender three-vote win in the House; the next day’s vote in the Senate would be even closer. To win, the pro-amendment forces would need 30 senators. For days, they scrambled tirelessly to nail down the last few votes. The morning of the 12th, they found themselves still one vote short.
The senators went into caucus, and everything came down to one last senator who’d opposed the bill from the start. Now—besieged by prayers from all over the country (including a small group of pastors just outside the door) and thousands of phone calls from his constituents—he buckled.
"It’s all about letting the people vote, right?" he asked. And with that, Forrester’s amendment finally passed. The meaning of marriage in North Carolina was in the voters’ hands.
"Let’s take up our positions. Let’s do what God’s called us to do.Tami Fitzgerald
"Most states have a year or so to organize and raise money," Fitzgerald says. "We had a much shorter time frame." House Democrats who supported the amendment, but feared a conservative turnout would hurt their governor at the November polls, had agreed to vote for the measure only if it went on the primary ballot, in May—an election notorious for low voter turnout.
"It can be an uphill battle, trying to get voters to come to the polls in May," Nimocks says. "You have opponents of marriage out-spending, out-campaigning, out-working the grassroots." With the governor, the attorney general and a conglomerate of law professors opposing the marriage amendment, and the media joining in, he says, "it could seem to the average citizen that protecting marriage isn’t a good thing."
Fitzgerald wasn’t fazed. She began assembling her own coalition: a group of black pastors, the Christian Action League, Catholic dioceses. She also sought out the soon-to-be president of the state Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Mark Harris, who, in one day, suddenly found himself catapulted into the thick of the hottest political fight to hit his state in years.
"At 10:30 on a Tuesday morning in November I was elected president," he remembers. "At 2:30 that afternoon, the state convention went on record as the largest body of believers in full support of the marriage amendment. Within 30 minutes of that vote, the media began to call." Days later, Fitzgerald was on the doorstep of Harris’s Charlotte church, recruiting him for a massive task.
More than one-fifth of all North Carolinans identify themselves as Southern Baptist—nearly 1.5 million potential voters. Without their help, she told him, the amendment didn’t stand a chance.
"Dr. Harris understands the impact these cultural issues have on the church," Fitzgerald says, "and how important they are to the church’s ability to give out the Gospel. He embraced this from the first day. He took the message to 4,300 Baptist pastors—he wore himself out."
"Herding pastors is like herding cats," Harris laughs. Still, his strategy was effective, if exhausting: he asked 20 leading pastors from the state’s five largest cities to meet with him—then took a week and hit the road. In each city, he asked each pastor to a) lead his people in praying fervently for the election, b) spur them to grassroots efforts of every kind, c) encourage them to give generously to the cause … and d) recruit four other pastors who would do the same.
The results were extraordinary—a blitz of phone calls, mass mailings, signs, speeches, voter registrations in every corner of the state. Prayer meetings multiplied. Sermons from hundreds of pulpits were heard, printed, and broadcast. And over $400,000 was raised for the campaign.
That kind of action draws strong opposition. Other denominations and state religious leaders worked just as fervently to denounce the amendment. Along with phone calls, e-mails, and death threats, some pastors, like Michael Barrett of Pleasant Garden Baptist in Greensboro, saw their churches infiltrated by outsiders seeking more insidious ways to undermine the marriage effort.
Barrett had announced in advance his intention to preach a biblical message on marriage and homosexual behavior. A few days after the service, he learned that a version of his sermon—carefully edited to make it sound threatening and hateful—had been posted on YouTube.
To Barrett, the attempt at intimidation was simply proof that the marriage fight "was one battle, but we’re facing a more important one—calling pastors to use their influence" in the culture.
"It’s critical for pastors to understand that we must be willing to stand," Harris says. "If we are going to be spiritual leaders, we have got to take that role seriously and be willing to stand up and share truth—because that is what God called us to do."
No one relishes that role more than Dr. Patrick Wooden, pastor of Upper Room Church of God in Christ Jesus in Raleigh, and one of North Carolina’s most influential evangelical leaders.
"Some of us are just made for the battle," he says, beaming. "As an African-American minister, I have witnessed firsthand what has happened to our community as a result of the demise and destruction of the two-parent family. I just felt that it was part of our calling to fight this battle."
Fitzgerald knew early on that the outspoken Wooden—a tall, barrel-chested man with the physical presence to back up his spiritual assertions—would be an indispensable ally.
"He is a visionary leader," she says, "a tenacious lion. He’s not afraid of going against what those in the culture are saying. His primary concern is what the Lord says."
Wooden waded headlong into the marriage battle, speaking boldly not only in churches but in debates at nearby universities and on local TV stations. When opponents suggested that, as a member of a race that has endured discrimination, he should not be speaking out against a bill they termed "anti-homosexual," Wooden replied, "The amendment is not ‘anti-’ anything. It’s pro-marriage. You can’t compare racial discrimination to discrimination based on deviant behavior."
Like the other leaders of the coalition, Wooden endured everything from obscene verbal assaults to threats on the life of his family. Even a fellow African-American pastor cursed him to his face, and many questioned his involving the church in so-called "political issues."
"We did not encroach on the politicians’ sacred ground. They encroached on ours. Marriage belonged to the church long before the government attached itself to it." Dr. Patrick Wooden
"We did not encroach on the politicians’ sacred ground," Wooden says. "They encroached on ours. Marriage belonged to the church long before the government attached itself to it. Most of the issues that bring people like me out are when we see things done or attempted that are just anti-biblical and we know they’re bad for the community. As a pastor, you can’t stand by and see the Word of God and that which is best for our society trampled over and say nothing."
The intensity of the battle ramped up even higher in the last weeks of the campaign. A sizeable kidney stone kept Harris in agony, but he continued speaking at rallies across North Carolina, his wife driving him all over the state and writing a marriage blog for the church’s website. The massive media battle ebbed and flowed: President Obama spoke out against the amendment; Billy Graham, 93—a North Carolina native—came out in support of it one week before the vote.
And Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys continued to provide crucial resources—offering legal advice and media training, joining in the debates and public forums, penning op-ed pieces and talking with pastors to affirm their constitutional right to speak out.
Through it all, the marriage coalition held together, encouraging each other and talking strategy on weekly conference calls. There were some ardent debates over tactics, but "no one had an ulterior motive," Wooden says. "The mission remained pure. We never lost focus on the goal."
The goal was realized on May 8, when voters in record numbers came out to the primary polls. More than 60 percent of them approved the amendment—an extraordinary and decisive victory.
"It was a big battle," Wooden says. "A wonderful, wonderful victory for our state. The joy came from being part of something that really mattered—realizing that, when we are dead and gone, we did this thing, and we did it because we knew that the God of the Bible was with our cause."
Coalition members and hundreds who’d stood with them rejoiced together that night in a North Raleigh hotel ballroom. But one voice was conspicuously missing from the celebration: Dr. Forrester had died the previous October, soon after his bill passed the legislature.
He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors. His widow, Mary Frances, set aside her grief to fight for his dream, campaigning tirelessly, night and day, for months, "determined that I would never look back and say, ‘I could have, should have.’
"I just knew I had to finish this for him," she says. "I thought, ‘If he could do what he did, I can do this. I can do this.’ And I did."
"At the end of the day, this marriage amendment is a freedom of religion issue, more than anything else," Wooden says. "If those who oppose traditional marriage actually had their way, and you followed this to its logical conclusion, it would severely change the way we practice our faith. When pastors all of a sudden see that, it is a different game. That is what is at stake."
"We wouldn’t imagine the issues that would come," Harris says. "Once same-sex marriage becomes law, you’re vulnerable—any individual who holds religious convictions and tries to express them will be put on the defensive."
The support of Alliance Defending Freedom gave many pastors an extra boost of confidence, he says, to stand for marriage during this critical statewide battle.
"They were very encouraging every step of the way to us," Harris says. "To know you have this network of some 2,200 attorneys willing to stand behind you … the wisdom, the knowledge, the experience that they bring to the table … it gives a pastor a great deal of confidence to be able to take that stand when you know you have this legal team standing with you."
Fitzgerald says that kind of legal support will be crucial in the many battles yet to come.
"The fact that, on the day after our marriage amendment election, the president himself came out of the closet on [same-sex] marriage is alarming," she says. "It shows the average voter across the country that this is a significant issue we’re going to be fighting for a very long time and that elections have consequences ... for your personal values and your religious freedom."
"These issues—when they come before us and we recognize them for the spiritual issues that they really are—can be a wake-up call for the church," Harris says. "That is my prayer, that God might propel us now to take stands on these issues that may very well lead to that great spiritual awakening that so many of us hunger for, are praying for, and have been hoping to be a part of.
"If we will stand shoulder to shoulder and arm in arm," he says, "we can do some pretty amazing things in truly impacting the culture of our day."