RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina voters on Tuesday approved a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions, dealing a blow to efforts across the United States to expand gay marriage rights.
The amendment, which says marriage between a man and a woman is the only legally recognized domestic union in the state, passed by a wide margin. With 95 of 100 counties’ results reported, about 61 percent of votes backed the amendment.
North Carolina law already blocks gay and lesbian couples from marrying, but the state now joins the rest of the Southeast states in adding the prohibition to its constitution.
Many voters simply viewed the amendment as a vote on same-sex marriage despite efforts by the measure’s opponents to broaden the discussion, said Tom Jensen of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling firm.
“Anytime in North Carolina you have a majority of Republicans and African Americans on the same side of an issue, that’s a very potent combination,” Jensen said.
Twenty-eight other state have voter-approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian nuptials.
Maryland, New Jersey and Washington state have passed laws this year approving same-sex marriage, but Governor Chris Christie vetoed New Jersey’s law and opponents in Maryland and Washington are threatening ballot initiatives to overturn those laws.
The vote in North Carolina followed statements by senior officials of President Barack Obama’s administration this week which were interpreted as supporting gay marriage.
Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday he was “absolutely comfortable” with allowing same-sex couples to wed, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said gay marriage should be legal.
Obama has said he favors civil unions but has stopped short of supporting gay marriage.
Supporters of the amendment in North Carolina, a swing state in the November 6 presidential election, said it would preserve the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and make laws forbidding gay marriage harder to repeal.
Opponents said a ban would jeopardize health insurance benefits for unmarried gay and heterosexual couples and signal that the state is unfriendly to a diverse workforce.
Prominent Christian evangelist Billy Graham called on voters to support the measure, while former Democratic President Bill Clinton and some business leaders urged North Carolinians to reject it.
“We will not allow marriage to be redefined in this state. The nation is watching North Carolina, and we have given them a high standard to follow,” Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the pro-amendment group Vote for Marriage NC, told supporters at a celebration party.
North Carolina voters on Tuesday also picked nominees in gubernatorial and congressional races.
Walter Dalton, the state’s lieutenant governor, clinched the Democratic nomination for governor after using his fundraising advantage to mount a television ad blitz in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Dalton received about 46 percent of the vote, according to incomplete returns. Bob Etheridge, a former congressman, trailed with 38 percent.
Dalton will face Republican Pat McCrory, a former seven-term Charlotte mayor who had token primary opposition, in the November general election. The winner will succeed Democratic Governor Bev Perdue, who surprised supporters by announcing she would not seek a second term.
Redistricting in the state created heightened interest in its congressional primaries, with Republicans sensing they could pick up as many as four seats currently held by Democrats.
Two Democratic congressmen, Brad Miller and Heath Shuler, chose to retire rather than run in redrawn districts that favor Republicans.
In the state’s strongly Republican 13th Congressional District where Miller serves, former U.S. Attorney George Holding won the Republican nomination with 44 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Paul Coble, a county commissioner and former Raleigh mayor.
Holding helped build the criminal case against former U.S. Senator John Edwards, who is standing trial on accusations that he accepted illegal campaign contributions to shield his pregnant mistress from the media during his 2008 presidential bid.
In the 11th Congressional District in western North Carolina, the seat Shuler is vacating, a crowded eight-candidate Republican primary appeared headed for a runoff. The winner will face Democrat Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s longtime chief of staff, in the November election.
Writing By Colleen Jenkins; editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham