RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina residents will vote next year on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage after the Senate on Tuesday approved putting the issue on a statewide ballot.

The 30-16 vote was enough to reach a three-fifths threshold needed to place an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot. The House approved the measure on Monday helped by the votes of 10 Democrats.

North Carolina currently has a statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but Republican leaders have pushed for a constitutional amendment to protect that law from being overturned by the courts.

North Carolina is the only Southern state that does not already have a ban on same-sex marriage enshrined in its constitution, while six states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage.

Supporters of the bill had originally proposed putting it on the general election ballot in November but agreed to switch the date to the May primary ballot to draw the support of Democrats whose votes were needed in the House.

Democrats had worried that having a same-sex marriage amendment on the general election ballot would skew turnout during next year's presidential contest in the Republicans' favor. North Carolina is expected to be a battleground state in 2012.

State Senator Dan Soucek, a Republican and sponsor of the amendment, said it was necessary to protect marriage between a man and a woman as the "time-tested building block of society."

Senator Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat, said the amendment was about the oppression of gay people.

"What we are doing here is making a situation that is difficult for many people much, much worse," she said.

The action by lawmakers was both praised and panned. Several hundred gay rights advocates protested the amendment at a noon rally outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called for voters to reject the amendment.

"This is deeply disappointing and hurtful to thousands of North Carolina same-sex couples who simply want to be able to care for each other and their families, as all families do," Carey said in a statement.

"We urge the fair-minded people of North Carolina to reject this painful attack on their neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members."

The president of Family Research Council Action, a national conservative group and the legislative advocacy arm of the Family Research Council, said lawmakers were investing in the state's future by paving the way for the citizen vote.

The group helped support the amendment effort, launching a radio ad campaign that targeted a dozen legislators in the state.

"The North Carolina legislature is investing in its future by allowing its citizens to vote on protecting and defending marriage," said the group's president, Tony Perkins. "The well-being of children, parental rights and religious liberty are all at stake in this referendum."

(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Domestic News

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