Originally published: Nov. 23, 2011, 11:45 a.m.
Updated: Nov. 26, 2011, 11 a.m.

Despite my longtime, whole-hearted disagreements with most Republican Party ideologies, I’ve been able to admire just one thing about the North Carolina GOP since their 2010 takeover of the state House and Senate. Of all their members — whose cheap gimmicks, lies and distractions filled this year’s legislative session to the brim — there stands at least one man who has usually risen above the fray with openness, honesty and balance. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has, for the most part, been a statesman and spoken, at least publicly, with respect, care and diligence, especially on LGBT issues.

N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis

Back in August, for example, Tillis told a Cornelius town hall audience that he found the anti-LGBT constitutional amendment on marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships to be a “difficult” and “emotional issue.” He also said he was open to talking with the opposition.

“I’ve talked with Equality NC and other groups and said I’m open to data to talk about the business impacts and talk about the other things to refute that argument, but at the end of the day as the speaker, when I know that over 80 members, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed up to have this bill heard, a part of my obligation is to allow these bills to be heard and have both sides build the arguments,” Tillis explained.

That’s the kind of balance and openness — even if Tillis’ most ardent opponents think it was contrived at the time — that LGBT advocates and community members rarely see from North Carolina Republicans. After all, we usually get only cold shoulders, slurs and insults. Tillis has chosen the higher road.

At a town hall meeting in Boone on Nov. 14, Tillis once again spoke with balance and respect when responding to a constituent’s question about the amendment. Tillis said the debate had been difficult for him personally, though not for moral reasons.

“My difficulty has to do with the role of government and the extent to which government imposes its will on personal lives,” he said, according to The Watauga Democrat.

Tillis was also careful to stress his relative non-involvement in the amendment debate.

“…[T]there are a large number of members who felt very passionately about it,” he said of lawmakers in support of the legislation. “It has continued to be a debate that has gone on for years. … I felt the best thing for us to do is put this to a vote before the people.”

Had the support not been as strong, one surmises, Tillis wouldn’t have let the amendment debate go forward. Obviously, there’s no way to know that’s true unless Tillis would confirm it.

If the amendment wins? He’ll honor the voters’ decision. And, if it loses? Well, he said he’d honor that, too.

“It will be the last time it is taken up as long as I am speaker,” he said.

I’m willing to give credit when it’s due. Tillis’ comments are balanced and, arguably, neutral when compared to his colleagues. But, according to Watauga Watch, a local Democratic-leaning blog, Tillis made another comment that can’t go by unchecked.

“Marriage is not a constitutional right,” Tillis said, according to the blog, and, from The Watauga Democrat: “Anyone, whether they be gay, lesbian, transgendered, will still be afforded the same basic rights, guaranteed under the Constitution, before or after the amendment.”

The assertion that marriage is not a constitutional right flies in the face of decades of constitutional law and interpretation. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed marriage and the right to enter into any marriage of one’s own choosing as a “fundamental freedom” several times, most notably in the landmark 1967 case, Loving v. Virginia.

From the historic ruling: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Though the decision in Loving ultimately rested upon a question over racial discrimination, no legal scholar and most laypeople with the tiniest bit of familiarity with the U.S. Constitution seriously believe that discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation is any less immoral and illegal. See, the 14th Amendment mentions nothing about race or any other characteristic. It’s guarantees apply equally to all citizens. No questions asked. No caveats needed.

“All persons,” the amendment states, “born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Speaker Tillis is a wise man. I’d like to think his “not a constitutional right” remark was a mere slip up. But, we’ll be left pondering that question for some time to come. At press time, our request to get a comment or clarification had yet to be returned by either the speaker himself or his communications director.

For now, we’ll let Tillis’ remarks stand as a teachable moment. For him. For his Republican colleagues. For the Democrats who voted with the speaker’s party in approving the amendment. And, ultimately, for every citizen of this great state.

Speaker Tillis is wrong: Marriage is a constitutional right, and his party’s anti-family, anti-business, anti-LGBT constitutional amendment invites exactly the same type of ill-will, animosity and hostility as laws that once barred interracial couples from enjoying the same basic and fundamental human and civil rights offered freely to couples of the same race. : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

2 replies on “Mr. Speaker’s teachable moment”

  1. Can you explain that two men or two men getting married has to do with “our very existence and survival” as per the Loving court.

    I think we can all agree that race is “unsupportable a basis” for Marriage law, as race has nothing do with with the matter.

    But sex/gender? Clearly the union of man and woman is “fundamental to our very existence and survival.” You just cannot say the same about race. Or about sexual orientation.

  2. Hi –

    Look, partnerships should be of no concern of the governments. If anything, it *might* be a religious issue but, I don’t buy that either. What difference should it make to the state if I wish to pledged my loyalty to a man, a woman or a refrigerator. Get the state (local, NC and US) out of the marriage business. Get religion and state separate. The less the two have to do with one another, the sounder both institutions will be.

    – Sharon Harmon
    Cramerton, NC

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