WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he was motivated to both protect religious freedom and secure the future for same-sex couples who have married when he helped craft an amendment and push through the Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. Senate.

The bill, including a bipartisan compromise that Tillis announced on Tuesday, passed its procedural vote in the Senate with 12 Republicans backing it – including Tillis and retiring Richard Burr of North Carolina – and Tillis said the Senate will take its final two votes after Thanksgiving and that he is “confident we have the votes” to pass it.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C., center) speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Wednesday’s roll call, which wound up as 62-47, meant there would be no filibuster to scuttle the consideration of the bill, an augmented version of the measure passed in July by the House that Tillis said he “would not have voted for.”

He discussed his perspective during a virtual press conference on Thursday morning, and he was clear about his goals in developing the amendment with Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona).

“The House bill had a number of flaws I wouldn’t have supported,” Tillis said. “We needed to clean up the language and address religious freedoms with language that protects religious institutions.”

He repeated various versions of that reasoning but also said his goal was to protect the “over a million who have same-sex marriages or civil unions” by providing “certainty as they move through the nation.”

This bill also is “ensuring religious-affiliated institutions are still able to preserve [the] faith they have for centuries.”

The amendment that Tillis’ group developed would protect religious liberty under the Constitution and would not require nonprofit religious organizations to perform marriages for people who don’t meet their standards, the group’s release said. It also specifies that this bill can’t be used to deny rights and would not affect a church or religious group’s nonprofit status.

The bill “affirms that couples, including same-sex and interracial couples, deserve the dignity, stability and ongoing protection of marriage,” Tillis’ original release said. The bill does not legalize polygamy.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Associated Press/John Amis)

The bill that passed the House – which Tillis had said in July he “probably” would support – emerged because of fear generated by an opinion written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Thomas’ remarks specifically mentioned Obergefell v. Hodges, the court’s decision in 2015 that required states to license same-sex couples for marriage under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Tillis said his amendment and the Freedom of Marriage Act would guard against any change to that.

Tillis called the Senate’s proffer “a sound bill could offer protections against future Supreme Court cases.

“I saw an opportunity to advance religious freedom and to provide certainty to people who are in a marriage today. Providing certainty on a court decision that most people think will hold.”

Although some religious groups have criticized the bill, Tillis said he had support from the Latter-day Saints – Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voted for it – the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the National Association for Evangelicals.

“They believe the bill is a good step forward,” he said.

Changed perspective

The bill also represents a step for Tillis, who as speaker of the House in North Carolina had supported Amendment One, the constitutional amendment in 2012 to ban same-sex marriage in the state. He voted for the bill but also acknowledged that he expected the courts to strike it down, which they did finally three years later.

Tillis was asked about that amendment on Thursday and what moved him to change his perspective.

“The Supreme Court decision [Obergefell] changes factors that lead you to look at your perspective,” Tillis said. “That’s the mix that’s never been in play before. That’s why I think it’s [the current bill’s] sound legislation that will age well.”

He shrugged off criticisms voiced by the NC Values Coalition – which called it the “pathway to polygamy,” although polygamy is specifically banned in the bill – and others.

“Respectfully this decision … when I make decisions, I make decisions on current data and current facts,” he said. “I compromise to take a step in the right direction – we made progress – I’m willing to stand on my record.”

The House’s views

When a version of this bill passed the House, the Republicans who represent North Carolina were not among its 47 GOP supporters. That includes the five Republicans who represent – or will represent – the 14 counties of the Piedmont Triad: 5th District Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Banner Elk); 8th District Rep. Richard Hudson (R-Moore County), who takes over the 9th District; 9th District Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Charlotte); who takes over the 8th District; 10th District Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-Statesville) and 13th District Rep. Ted Budd (R-Advance), who last week was elected succeed Burr.

Bishop was the only one in the group who commented on the vote, calling the bill “an attack on Americans who hold the view that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro), who was re-elected to represent the 6th District, was one of the five Democrats from NC who voted for the bill. She also supported the bill with Tillis’ amendment.

“The right to marry the person you love, established by the Supreme Court and supported by people across this country, should not be threatened on the whim of a new Supreme Court,” Manning said in a statement delivered by her spokesperson. “We must codify marriage equality immediately, and I applaud my Senate colleagues for their leadership and urge Congress to get this done swiftly.”