Politics & Government

Group backing Tillis calls him a ‘pro-LGBTQ Republican.’ What does the record say?

As speaker of the N.C. House, Thom Tillis helped place a ban on same-sex marriages in the state constitution and then defended the amendment in court. As a U.S. senator, Tillis has consistently received low marks for his voting records on gay rights from the nation’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights organization.

But in an invitation for a fundraiser this week in D.C., Tillis was touted as “a pro-LGBTQ Republican” by the conservative gay rights group hosting the event. American Unity Fund, which wants to make the conservative case for gay Americans, hosted the fundraiser to benefit Tillis and five other Republican congressional incumbents, including Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine.

“I think it probably is the best statement about how I go after policies I care about, and the politics have to work themselves out,” Tillis told The Washington Examiner this week.

Tillis, Gardner and Collins are expected to face competitive Senate re-election races in 2020.

“Senator Tillis has already distinguished himself in the first term as someone who is very bipartisan, very sensitive and thoughtful when it comes to these issues. He’s someone who is perfectly in line with where North Carolina is at on these issues,” said Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser at American Unity Fund.

Deaton pointed to Tillis’ statement after North Carolina passed a compromise bill to repeal House Bill 2, the 2016 so-called “bathroom bill” that eliminated local ordinances expanding protections for LGBTQ persons, including one in Charlotte that allowed transgender persons to use the bathroom associated with their gender identity.

“North Carolina’s brand and continued economic prosperity should not be beholden to the loudest voices on either the far-left or the far-right who don’t have our state’s best interests in mind. I’m glad that state lawmakers were able to reach a commonsense compromise to repeal HB2,” Tillis said in a statement at the time.

Deaton said it exemplified Tillis’ “willingness to stand up to extremes on both sides and find a reasonable outcome.” Tillis was not a member of the N.C. House when HB2 was passed or when it was repealed.

Critics have panned the compromise bill and say it is still discriminatory, in part, because it prevents cities from passing non-discrimination ordinances until December 2020. A legal challenge will be heard in federal court was Winston-Salem on Friday.

Other groups have been critical of Tillis and his record on gay rights. The Human Rights Campaign scores lawmakers on what it considers critical votes for gay rights during each Congress. Tillis received a zero for the last two-year session. By comparison, Gardner scored a 12 and Collins a 33.

“On all the votes that have mattered since he has been in the U.S. Senate, he has not voted with the LGBTQ community,” said Ames Simmons, policy director at Equality NC.

Tillis will attend a fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence — a frequent target of gay rights activists — on May 22 in Greenbsoro.

Gay marriage ban: ‘Repealed within 20 years’

In 2011, Tillis — then serving as N.C. House Speaker — voted to place a constitutional amendment that declared “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” The measure passed with 61 percent of the vote in May 2012.

Before it passed, Tillis told students at N.C. State that he expected the amendment to pass — and “be repealed within 20 years,” citing data on generational attitudes about gay marriage, according to The Charlotte Observer. When a judge ruled state laws against same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Tillis appealed, saying he felt it was his responsibility “after 60 percent of the people voted that into law, to defend the law of the state.”

The Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that states were required to grant same-sex marriages.

Since the landmark decision, Tillis has been focused on protecting religious freedoms for North Carolinians, according to his office. Tillis co-sponsored the First Amendment Defense Act, which aims to protect those with sincerely held religious beliefs, including on the definition of marriage, from discrimination by the federal government. The Human Rights Campaign said the bill would prevent the government from enforcing federal protections for LGBTQ persons.

Several months before the Supreme Court decision, Tillis voted for a non-binding amendment that would give legally married same-sex spouses benefits, including Social Security and veterans benefits, McClatchy reported.

“The amendment was simply a matter of the fair application of the law. If a veteran has served our country and is in a relationship that is legally recognized by a state, the federal government — in fairness, and out of respect for the policies each state sets for itself — should apply the law the same way for each and every veteran, regardless of whether Sen. Tillis supports the decision made by another state relating to marriage,” Tillis’ former spokeswoman Meghan Burris at that time.

But Tillis ultimately voted against the amendment when it came time to add it to the defense bill.

When President Donald Trump announced in July 2017 he was banning transgender troops from serving in the military, Tillis denounced the policy change. “I would have significant objections to any proposal that calls for a specific group of American patriots currently serving in uniform to be removed from the military,” he said at the time. The ban went into effect in April.

In 2015, Tillis voted against amendments to add anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students in public schools and for homeless LGBTQ youth seeking housing, education and job training.

“All Americans are on a journey when it comes to LGBTQ issues,” Deaton said. “The world has changed very quickly. If we are going to say it’s not OK to change and that it’s not OK to change your mind or to be on this journey like everyone else, that is is not a good outcome for the LGBT community.”

Joins with other incumbents to raise funds

The fundraising event, held May 14 in Washington, cost from $250 to $25,000 for guests to attend. It raised funds for Americans United for Freedom, a joint fundraising committee that includes Tillis, Gardner and Collins as well as three moderate Republican House members — Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York and Elise Stefanik of New York.

All three House members broke with the majority of their party to vote for the Equality Act on Friday. The Equality Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, education, employment and other areas. Eight GOP members voted for it in the House, along with 228 Democrats.

“The Equality Act is at the top of any LGBTQ list for the federal Congress,” said Simmons with Equality NC.

Deaton said there was a good turnout for the event.

“The common denominator for these six is they all represent reasonableness and a bipartisan attitude around LGBT issues, and they’re all in tough races. They’re deserving of support from Republicans who care about the whole set of issues of personal freedom and limited government,” Deaton said.

Americans United for Freedom have not filed campaign reports with the FEC for this current cycle.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.