North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has been working on fellow Republicans to support the Respect for Marriage Act, and found success Tuesday as it passed the chamber, 61-36. North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr, was among the 12 Republicans who voted for it.
While the act does not require states to permit same-sex marriages, it does require that states recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Tillis played a pivotal role in negotiating the finer points of the bill and generating Republican support. He called it “a good compromise.”
“It’s one that’s based on mutual respect for our fellow Americans, protecting the rights of Americans who may have different lifestyles or different viewpoints,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The U.S. House is expected to pass the bill by the end of the year. It will then go to President Biden’s desk for signature. The House passed its version in July with a vote of 267-157, including 47 Republicans.
Tillis was a negotiator on the final version’s details, which include protections for nonprofits and religious organizations from being required to support same-sex marriages with services, facilities, or goods.
“One, it maintains the status quo with respect to same-sex marriage that was set forth by the Supreme Court decision, but then we make a lot of progress on ensuring that religious-affiliated institutions are still able to observe their faith and the way that they have for decades or centuries, and I think that we’ve struck that balance,” Tillis said in a virtual press conference earlier this month. “We put together a bill that has been endorsed by a religious freedom coalition that includes the Church of (Jesus Christ) of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Evangelicals, and they believe that what we’ve done here is a good step forward for protecting religious freedom.”
The Respect for Marriage Act repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, which defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states.
Groups like the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom disagree with Tillis’ assessment of the bill and call it “deceptively named.” They say the legislation puts a target on religious organizations who believe marriage is between one man and one woman.
“The issue is not the ability to believe in man-woman marriage, but the ability to live out those beliefs meaningfully in society and not be labeled a bigot by the government for doing so,” said Roger Severino of the Heritage Foundation.
Severino and other opponents believe that the measure is an effort to head off the U.S. Supreme Court from revisiting the 2015 Obergfell v. Hodges decision, in which the court decided 5-4 that several states violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment in bans on same-sex marriage or refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages that occurred in jurisdictions that provided for such marriages.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case overturning Roe v. Wade that the Obergefell decision could be on the table.
“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote.
“I do think the Supreme Court decision changes the factors that lead you to a conclusion to support or not support the bill,” Tillis said in the press conference. “It certainly did for me. I mean, when you have a population that is growing, when you have people who are experts at arguing cases before the Supreme Court that believe that decision is going to hold at the SCOTUS level, then why not take some time to provide certainty to these families and take the opportunity to provide greater protections for religious freedom?”
The N.C. Values Coalition released a statement on Wednesday opposing the bill.
“The misnamed ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ is completely unnecessary, as it does nothing to change the legal status of same-sex marriage,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Values Coalition. “It is a dangerous, direct attack on Americans who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman and threatens their First Amendment rights by subjecting them to predatory lawsuits by activists, seeking to use the threat of litigation to silence debate and exclude people of faith from the public square. By choosing to disregard legitimate concerns about the undeniable harms of this bill and by rejecting amendments offered by Senators Lee, Rubio, and Lankford to protect religious freedom, Senators Tillis and Burr have betrayed their own voters and their party’s platform on marriage.”