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N.C.'s New Gay Marriage Ban Leaves Couples In Limbo

From left, Melissa, Moira and Libby Hodges.
From left, Melissa, Moira and Libby Hodges.

In North Carolina, cities and counties that offer domestic partner benefits to employees are in limbo after voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

In some other states, such amendments have led to the end of domestic partner benefits for public workers. And that's exactly what some families in North Carolina are afraid of.

Ever since voters approved the constitutional amendment on May 8, Libby Hodges has worried about what could happen to her family's health coverage. But she's trying to put on a good face for her 4-year-old daughter, Moira.

"Sometimes it just happens that way," Libby tells her daughter. "Like when you play a soccer game. ... If I lose or win it's okay."

Libby works for the city of Durham, one of nine local governments across the state offering domestic partner benefits. Moira is on her insurance plan. But since Libby isn't the little girl's biological mom, that benefit could end.

Libby's partner, Melissa Hodges, who gave birth to Moira, could add their daughter to her insurance plan. That would cost an extra $500 a month, a big hit to their budget. Melissa says they may have to move to a state where domestic partner benefits are assured.

"I'm going to stay on the lookout for jobs in all these various different places in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland," Melissa says. "I was looking back at the list today of which states do we have all the same benefits and rights or at least as close as we can get."

Legal experts say same-sex couples have reason to worry about these plans ending.

"They create grounds for those who oppose these programs to challenge these programs in court," says Holning Lau, a professor at the University of North Carolina Law School. He studies how legal issues, including amendments like North Carolina's, affect non-traditional families. "They do create a chilling effect on local governments considering passing domestic partner benefits."

Libby Hodges (left) and Melissa Hodges at their 2006 wedding in Vancouver, British Columbia. The marriage is not recognized as legal in North Carolina.
/ Courtesy: Libby and Melissa Hodges
Libby Hodges (left) and Melissa Hodges at their 2006 wedding in Vancouver, British Columbia. The marriage is not recognized as legal in North Carolina.

In states that have passed amendments like North Carolina's, benefits for same-sex couples have dwindled.

In Michigan, some public employers offered programs allowing employees to add anyone to their insurance, but state lawmakers ended that workaround for everyone except those in the university system.

The attorney generals of Kentucky and Idaho have issued opinions saying domestic partner benefits are unconstitutional. That could happen in North Carolina too.

"We don't know what this amendment means and how it might apply to domestic partner benefits," says Bob Hagemann, an attorney for the City of Charlotte, which was considering offering domestic partner benefits before the amendment passed. "Ultimately, even with an attorney general's decision, ultimately the decision is going to have to be resolved in our state courts."

Charlotte's city council has requested an opinion from North Carolina's attorney general.

Officials in Winston-Salem, who've been interested in offering domestic partner benefits, are waiting to hear, too.

Local governments that currently provide the benefits are continuing for the moment. No one has filed suit yet, and city attorneys say without case law to follow, they're in limbo.

So are Melissa and Libby Hodges, the couple whose child may lose her benefits. Libby says they moved to North Carolina from Georgia after that state passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004.

"How far do we have to keep going?" Libby asks. "Why do we have to keep running from state to state just to try to get the very basic rights just to exist as a family unit?"

Copyright 2012 North Carolina Public Radio