Gay rights advocates won a major battle in Raleigh last week with the Senate’s passage of the School Violence Prevention Act, an anti-bullying measure that would direct local school systems to guard against harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill passed by a 26-22 vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Its sponsor, Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, is the legislature’s first openly gay member. Among Triangle legislators, the supporters were Sens. Bob Atwater, D-Chatham, Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, Floyd McKissick, D-Durham and Josh Stein, D-Wake. Wake Republican Sens. Neal Hunt and Richard Stevens voted no. (The late Sen. Vernon Malone, D-Wake, held the fourth Wake County Senate seat. It was unfilled at the time of the vote. See “Dan Blue takes Vernon Malone’s seat; new House member sought“.)

Proponents of the measure considered Senate passage the highest hurdle in front of them. The bill now goes to the House, which passed similar legislation in the last General Assembly term only to see it die in the Senate. Gov. Bev Perdue indicated her support for such anti-bullying protections during her campaign.

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said that if enacted, Senate Bill 526 would be the first law in the state’s history to recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as categories akin to gender, religion and race. He said advocates “have a lot of work to do” before that happens, however. In the last term, he recalled, the House passed the bill only after rejecting by one vote an amendment that would’ve stripped out the language about which students are most likely to be harassed.

One of the bill’s chief sponsors in the House, Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, is optimistic about its chances there. He said more members this time have a “changed understanding of what the bill does and doesn’t do” based on listening to their constituents, “and that the best way to stop bullying is to be very clear and specific about its causes and to make sure teachers have the tools they need.”

Under SB 526, bullying is defined as “severe or persistent” conduct often motivated by hostility to a student’s “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation or [physical or mental] disability.”

Students must be protected against such conduct, the bill states. It would require every school system, by Dec. 31, 2009, to adopt and implement a specific policy, including methods and strategies, to assure that students will be protected, and to incorporate the policy into all employee training programs.

The specific categories in the bill, advocates say, are needed to prevent schools from glossing over the fact that gay students are more likely to be bullied than straight ones, thus demanding affirmative steps by school leaders to combat homophobia along with other forms of bias.

According to the national group Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which supports federal and state protections against bullying in schools, gay middle- and high-school students and students who identify as straight but are called gay by peers are three times as likely as other students to report that they do not feel safe at school.

GLSEN’s 2007 survey found that 86 percent of middle- and high-school lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported being harassed at school in the past year.

The North Carolina action comes as the gay rights movement chalks up landmark victories in state capitals around the nation. The Iowa Supreme Court recently declared that gays have an equal right to be married in that state. Last week, the Maine legislature passed, and Maine’s Democratic governor signed into law, a bill giving same-sex marriages there equal footing with hetero-sex marriages.

North Carolina does not allow or recognize same-sex marriages under the state’s so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While the Democrats who control the General Assembly won’t move to repeal it, they continue to block Republican efforts to write the DOMA into the state constitution via a public referendum.

Opponents of the anti-bullying bill are warning that, if enacted, it could be a precedent for more sweeping gay-rights initiatives in North Carolinaup to and including same-sex marriages.

For example, a letter to Catholic parishioners from Michael Burbidge, Bishop of the Raleigh diocese, and Bishop of Charlotte Peter Jugis, called bullying based on gender identity and sexual orientation “reprehensible” but said the two “specific differentiating characteristics” should not be written into laws. In other states with a law similar to SB 526, they said, “the law was used as part of a lawsuit to persuade a judge or court to mandate same-sex marriage.”

The conservative Family Policy Council of North Carolina issued a similar warning.

Palmquist dismissed the critics, however, saying there’s a wide gulf in the law between recognizing a group of people and according them the status of a “protected class,” which the U.S. Supreme Court has generally limited to African-Americans and women.

“Their argument that an anti-bullying bill today will lead to gay marriage tomorrow is pretty ridiculous,” Palmquist said.