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U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in 2018. (WRAL file photo courtesy of the New York Times) U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in 2018. (WRAL file photo courtesy of the New York Times)

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in 2018. (WRAL file photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht January 17, 2023

Tillis vote shows shift in same-sex marriage position

When North Carolina’s two U.S. senators supported a 2022 federal law protecting the legal status of some same-sex marriages, many of their constituents were surprised.

The Nov. 29 votes of Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, who has since retired, in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act came nearly a decade after Tillis pushed for a strict state ban on same-sex marriage. And the North Carolina Republican Party’s platform states that marriage between one man and one woman "must be upheld as the national standard."  

So has Tillis flip-flopped on the issue of same-sex marriage? We decided to put his record through our Flip-O-Meter, which measures whether a politician has been consistent in his or her votes or stated views.

In Tillis’ case, his votes do reveal a shift in his attitude toward marriage rights and which protections should be afforded to same-sex couples. 

In 2012, Tillis was instrumental in placing a same-sex marriage ban on the North Carolina state constitution. If the U.S. Supreme Court someday overturns its 2015 decision on marriage, the Respect for Marriage Act would allow states like North Carolina to withhold new marriage certificates to same-sex couples. However, the federal legislation would protect the legal status of existing same-sex marriages — a kind of compromise Tillis touted on the Senate floor.

North Carolina referendum

In 2011, the GOP gained control of both chambers in the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in more than 100 years. State House members elected Tillis as chamber speaker. 

At the time, same-sex marriages were already effectively banned. 

Even as national polls showed growing support for same-sex marriage rights, North Carolina lawmakers sought to block state marriage laws from changing. So Tillis and the Republican majority placed a referendum on the May 2012 ballot, known as Amendment 1, asking voters whether marriages between a man and a woman should be the only ones mentioned in the state constitution. 

The move created another political obstacle for supporters of same-sex marriage. The state constitution can only be changed through a referendum, and referendums can only be placed on the ballot if 60% of lawmakers support the idea in both the state House and state Senate.

Tillis was on the front lines of the North Carolina’s GOP’s push to shut out same-sex marriages. As speaker, he voted to place the referendum on the ballot and defended it to voters — despite expressing personal qualms with the proposed amendment.

During an event in Boone in 2011, Tillis described the proposed amendment as a difficult one for him personally, according to the Watauga Democrat newspaper. 

"My difficulty has to do with the role of government and the extent to which government imposes its will on personal lives," he said at the time, according to the paper. "But there are a large number of members who felt very passionately about it."

Tillis also garnered criticism for acknowledging that lawmakers were working against political trends. He referred to same-sex marriage rights as a "generational issue" while speaking to a student group at North Carolina State University in March 2012 and. He also predicted that if the referendum were to pass, "it will be repealed within 20 years."

Still, Tillis said he supported Amendment 1, telling Business North Carolina in April 2012 that he was comfortable with a stricter same-same marriage ban. 

"The fundamentals are, the institution of marriage, which has traditionally been defined as the union of man and woman, is something I'm at peace with," Tillis said then, according to Business NC. "If you go to states that have those laws on the books, they're rated by gay-lesbian-transgender entities as some of the most desirable states to work in. They've found ways to work with them."

That May, Amendment 1 was adopted with 61% of the vote.

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Respect for Marriage Act

After the vote, the legal landscape for same-sex marriage did change in North Carolina — and fast. 

In 2014, a federal judge in Asheville struck down the state's restrictions, allowing same-sex marriages to move forward. Attorneys for Tillis and other legislative leaders attempted to block or delay the ruling, to no avail. 

Then, shortly after Tillis became a U.S. senator in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Since then, conservatives have gained a 6-3 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. When the high court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision last year and revoked the constitutional right to abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court could also reconsider its decision in Obergefell. 

That generated a sense of urgency among senators who wanted to protect the marital status of Americans in same-sex marriages. In July, U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., filed a bill seeking to protect same-sex marriage. The measure essentially provides a fallback plan for same-sex couples if the Supreme Court someday overturns the Obergefell decision. 

The law doesn’t require states to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. If Obergefell is struck down, North Carolina could revert to withholding marriage certificates from same-sex couples. But the Respect for Marriage Act would require North Carolina to recognize same-sex marriages that were legal when they were performed, as well as similar marriages performed legally in other states.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., led a push to wrangle GOP support for the Respect for Marriage Act. She was aided by Tillis and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, The Washington Post reported.

"Thom Tillis throughout the [congressional] recess kept calling me. And said, ‘I talked to fill-in-the-blank today. Can you give a call too?’" Collins told the Post. "We tried to reinforce each other."

The bill passed the House in July. The Senate then approved the measure 61-36 in late November, narrowly defeating a filibuster that had raised the number of votes needed for the bill’s advancement.  President Joe Biden signed it into law on Dec. 13. 

What Tillis says

Tillis has pushed back on the idea that he’s flip-flopped on the issue of same-sex marriage rights.

On the Senate floor on Nov. 29, Tillis argued the Respect for Marriage Act would simply preserve the legal status quo. He said it would provide security to people in same sex and interracial marriages while also preserving the right of religious organizations not to offer or sanction such unions, WRAL and CNN reported

"This is a good compromise," Tillis said. It was "based on mutual respect for our fellow Americans, protecting the rights of Americans who may have different lifestyles, or different viewpoints."

In a Nov. 17 video press conference, Tillis emphasized the need to appreciate how the legal landscape has changed over 10 years.

"When I make decisions, I make decisions based on current data, current facts," he said in the video press conference, referring to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. "The current data and current facts have changed." 

"Now there are over a million people who have either same-sex marriage or civil unions," he said, adding that if Obergefell is overturned, "We think that we owe this community some certainty."

Our ruling

When Tillis became House Speaker, same-sex marriage was already banned in North Carolina. Tillis then took an extra step to block same-sex couples from marriage rights. He led legislative Republicans as they placed a referendum on the May 2012 ballot, which voters approved, that enshrined the same-sex marriage ban in the state’s constitution.

Ten years later, Tillis’ support for the Respect for Marriage Act stands out. He was one of only 12 senate Republicans who voted to protect existing same-sex marriages. As Tillis has pointed out, the legislation would allow North Carolina to revert to its former one man, one woman marriage law if Obergefell is overturned. But North Carolina would also have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, as well as all same-sex marriages previously performed in North Carolina.

It’s clear Tillis has not done a full Flip-Flop. But he did branch out and offer support to some same-sex couples, even when the majority of his party did not.

That shows a partial change in position, meaning he has done a Half Flip.

Our Sources

The Respect for Marriage Act, also known as H.R. 8404.

North Carolina "Defense of Marriage Act," also known as S.B. 514.

North Carolina Constitution Article 13

WRAL, "NC's Tillis says Respect for Marriage Act preserves status quo, is 'a good compromise,'" posted with CNN on Nov. 29, 2022; "Tillis works to pass same-sex marriage bill despite earlier opposition," Nov. 17, 2022; "Federal judge strikes down NC's same-sex marriage ban," Oct. 10, 2014.

Pew Research Center, "Attitudes on same-sex marriage," May 14, 2019.

Associated Press, "GOP-Led NC Legislature Nearing Gay Marriage Vote," Sept. 12, 2011.

Watauga Democrat, "NC House speaker meets residents, Boone officials," Nov. 17, 2011.

Business NC, "Business’s man: House speaker Thom Tillis is North Carolina’s most focused free-market legislative leader in a long time — maybe ever," April 16, 2012.

Politico, "Justice Thomas: SCOTUS ‘should reconsider’ contraception, same-sex marriage rulings," June 24, 2022; "Amendment One: North Carolina votes on gay marriage," May 8, 2012.

The Hill, "The Respect for Marriage Act has been introduced in Congresses for more than a decade. What makes this time different?" Nov. 30, 2022.

The Washington Post, "How a bipartisan group of senators got same-sex marriage protections passed," Nov. 30, 2022.

NBC News, "Senate passes bill to protect same-sex and interracial marriage over GOP opposition," Nov. 29, 2022.

Video press conference with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, Nov. 17, 2022.

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