North Carolina senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr were among a dozen Republican senators who on Nov. 16 voted in favor of advancing the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal the Defense for Marriage Act and require the federal government to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.
The Respect for Marriage Act is currently de facto federal law because of the Supreme Court rulings of Obergefell v. Hodges and Loving v. Virginia. However, the future for same-sex marriage became uncertain after Justice Clarence Thomas explicitly called for the court to reconsider the Obergefell decision in June.
The 12 Republican senators were joined by all 48 Democrats and two Independents to overcome the 60 votes needed to avoid a potential filibuster, making it very likely that the bill will pass the Senate this week. The bill can only become federal law once both chambers of Congress pass it and President Joseph Biden signs it.
Tillis joined a group of bipartisan senators who introduced an amendment to the Respect for Marriage Act on Nov. 14 that would ensure protections for religious freedom, an issue that had been the main source of opposition from Republicans. The amendment would ensure non-profit religious institutions cannot be forced to perform marriage ceremonies, among other measures.
“Through bipartisan collaboration, we’ve crafted commonsense language to confirm that this legislation fully respects and protects Americans’ religious liberties and diverse beliefs, while leaving intact the core mission of the legislation to protect marriage equality,” read a joint statement from the group.
Senators voted 61-35 Monday night to advance the amendment to the bill.
Despite Tillis’ role in helping advance the Respect for Marriage Act, Tillis has a record of historical opposition to same-sex marriage. As speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives in 2012, Tillis advanced a bill which banned same-sex marriage in the state through constitutional amendment after it was ratified by 61% of N.C. voters. The ban was eventually nullified by the Obergefell decision in 2015.
“Lots has changed since then, not the least of which is the Obergefell decision that rescinded that action,” Tillis told WRAL News. “I do think the Supreme Court decision changes the factors that lead you to a conclusion to support or not support the bill. It certainly did for me.”
Despite the amendment, many Republicans and conservative groups believed the bill did not go far enough to protect religious freedom. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, claimed the bill “intentionally [jeopardizes] millions of Americans who have sincerely held beliefs about marriage.”
The NC Values Coalition, an organization whose mission includes preserving religious liberty, denounced Tillis and Burr, arguing that the senators voted to advance a “pathway to polygamy.” The amendment specifically states that the bill does not allow the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages.
Other supporters of the bill believe that it does not go far enough to ensure equal rights.
Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, told WRAL News that the Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act is a “limited bill.”
"This is not a replacement for continuing to fight in state legislatures where we have had absolutely unprecedented attacks on the LGBTQ community, and particularly on trans kids," Oakley said. "All of those pieces are still in front of us. And this is one very important slice of a much larger pie of work."
The Respect for Marriage Act, which did not contain the amendment at the time, passed the U.S. House in July with a 267-157 vote. All House Democrats voted in favor of the bill and were joined by 47 Republicans, none of which were from North Carolina. N.C. Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate to replace Burr, who is retiring, voted against the bill.
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Jazper Lu is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.