When the Respect for Marriage Act passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday, it did so with the support of North Carolina Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, two of just twelve Republican senators to vote for the measure, which aims to be sure same-sex marriage retains federal recognition.
Tillis is in his second term and Burr is retiring as the GOP wrestles with tension over LGBTQ issues and the party is fueling a national tide of anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures. U.S. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), recently elected to Burr’s senate seat, has spoken at political rallies held by Christian nationalist groups that oppose same-sex marriage. The Respect for Marriage Act vote was driven by concern over the potential for a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that established marriage equality as a constitutional right. Should decisions on marriage recognition return to the states, there’s a strong chance marriage equality would be among the targets of a GOP majority in the General Assembly – it numbers strengthened in this month’s election – that has for yeas pushed a series of anti-LGBTQ bills.
Ten years ago, North Carolina was the last state to pass a same-sex marriage ban by statewide referendum. Amendment One, which was approved by a margin of 61% to 39% in a 2012 primary election that featured a turnout of just 35%, was found unconstitutional in 2014 after Gov. Roy Cooper — then the state’s Attorney General — declined to defend it in federal court. Since then, polls have consistently showed growing support for same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ protections.
But Cooper’s veto – and Democrats’ ability to sustain it the General Assembly – was the only thing preventing some anti-LGBTQ bills from advancing at the state level. Republicans now need just one Democratic vote or absence to overcome Cooper’s veto.
For that reason, LGBTQ advocates are warning the Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t go far enough. While ensuring marriages legal in one state will be recognized across the country, it doesn’t prevent state from turning back the clock to a period where same-sex couples can be married in some states but not others.
“Today’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act crucially codifies marriage equality for our communities,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC in a statement Tuesday. “However, LGBTQ+ people deserve so much more. We need our legislators to pass comprehensive legislation which protects our communities, like the Equality and Fairness for All Act. Moreover, we need federal protections from the onslaught of hateful legislation and policy being enacted on the state level. The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act is a good step, but there’s a massive gulf between where we are now and where we need to be.”
While marriage equality is an issue that increasingly divides Republicans, the party and its state lawmakers continue to fully back anti-transgender legislation from the local and state to the national level.
On Tuesday, just across the border in Virginia, Republican state lawmakers filed Senate Bill 791, which would outlaw gender affirming care for transgender youth and allow health insurance companies to decline coverage for gender affirming care for transgender people of any age. The bill is a version of the same anti-transgender legislation recently passed in Arkansas, now the subject of a federal lawsuit.
Conservative activists and lawmakers have discussed similar bills in North Carolina and are actively pushing for them in the coming session.