Good afternoon! On Tuesday, three Republican legislators in North Carolina filed a bill to outlaw same-sex marriage in the state by nullifying the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Their effort received a great deal of press—which was the whole point, since the measure is an overt stunt with no chance of passing. Indeed, the ultraconservative House Speaker Tim Moore has already killed the bill, an uncharacteristically rational response to the fact that even if the measure somehow passed, it would promptly be blocked in court.
What kind of people, you might wonder, would waste their time and energy on a legislative proposal that is both deeply stupid and obviously doomed? I asked the same question, and discovered that the three representatives behind the North Carolina Nullification Non-Crisis are fabulously colorful people. Here are some of their most noteworthy insights and achievements.
1. State Rep. Larry Pittman: the Lincoln-bashing communist hunter
Pittman is an active participant in lively online debates regarding his preferred legislation. On Wednesday, he waded into a Facebook thread after one commenter urged him to move on from the marriage equality battle.
“And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it?” Pittman responded. “Lincoln was the same sort if (sic) tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.”
In a sense, Pittman’s ire toward President Abraham Lincoln is consistent with his political views. Lincoln rose to power as the country tore itself apart over the issue of slavery. Many proponents of the practice rooted their arguments in states’ rights, especially the doctrines of nullification and secession. Southern states asserted that they could nullify federal laws or rulings that contravened their sovereignty, or secede altogether if necessary to protect the states’ interests against an overreaching federal government. Lincoln disagreed and wound up on the winning side of history: The Civil War, and the resulting constitutional amendments, definitely resolved this dispute.
But not to Pittman! He, like many Confederate sympathizers, insists that Lincoln got it wrong, and that the resulting war and new birth of freedom were actually “unnecessary and unconstitutional” encroachments upon states’ rights. For Pittman, the right to nullification (and presumably secession) are fundamental to state sovereignty; any restrictions on these rights, even constitutional ones, are illegitimate. By this reasoning, North Carolina absolutely has a right to nullify Obergefell and even secede if necessary. You need only erase roughly 156 years of history to see the logic here.
In 2013, Pittman joked that Obama was born in Kenya. He has also called the Common Core curriculum “part of the Marxist attack on America to destroy us from within that has been going on since before I was born.” An adamant abortion foe, he described his most recent anti-abortion bill quite vividly:
This would require that before an abortionist gives a mother the first pill in an RU486 abortion procedure, the mother must be informed that the process can be reversed, and must be given information about where and how to get help with that. It would also require that before the mother receives the second pill, she must be given proof that the baby is dead.
Pittman is an ordained Presbyterian minister and pastor.
2. Rep. Michael Speciale: the puppy hater
Poor Ann McCrory! The former first lady of North Carolina had just one item on her legislative agenda: regulating “puppy mills,” the notorious commercial breeders that neglect and abuse their dogs. In 2013, legislators filed a straightforward bill requiring puppy mills to treat their animals humanely. McCrory attended debate in the House, likely expecting easy passage given the measure’s broad bipartisan support. But during floor debate, Speciale rose in opposition to the bill, asserting that its provisions were too ambiguous.
“ ‘Exercise on a daily basis,’ ” he said. “If I kick [a puppy] across the floor, is that considered daily exercise? ‘Euthanasia performed humanely’—so should I choose the ax or the baseball bat?”
One fellow Republican representative called Speciale’s remarks “disgusting.” Our friend Pittman, however, defended Speciale, claiming he had simply made a joke. In a Facebook post that Speciale wrote then deleted, Speciale corrected Pittman:
My comments were intended to get my point across to the other members about the many ways that some things in the bill can be misinterpreted. I wasn’t trying to be humorous, I was serious about how the wording in this bill could be twisted.
One Representative stood up and said that he was disgusted by what has been said, but that was, in my opinion, for the benefit of the Governor’s wife, who was sitting in the balcony and who had been supporting this bill that will accomplish nothing.
Speciale is notorious for two other imprudent statements that happen to have been directed toward black men. First, in 2013, he wrote an angry email to the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, decrying his “racist diatribes and your race-baiting attitude.” (Barber had spoken out against voter ID laws.) Second, he called Obama an “Islamic son of a bitch” on Facebook in 2015. He has not yet apologized.
3. Rep. Carl Ford: merging church and state
Ford came to the capitol in 2013 and wasted no time making headlines. Early in his first term, he co-sponsored a bill allowing North Carolina and its cities to establish an official religion.
That is a rather idiosyncratic idea, since the First Amendment to the Constitution explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But Ford argued that because the amendment binds only Congress, states and towns can still establish religions. There is a glaring problem with this analysis: The 14th Amendment applies most of the Bill of Rights—including the Establishment Clause—to the states. But Ford’s bill alleged that this long-standing constitutional understanding is incorrect and that in reality, the 10th Amendment allows states to “independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
It turns out there was actually a method to Ford’s madness, albeit a very stupid one. At the time, civil rights groups were suing Rowan County, North Carolina, which opened Board of Commissioners meetings with explicitly Christian prayers. Ford and his co-sponsor believed their bill could help Rowan County by freeing it from the Establishment Clause, which limits sectarian prayer at government gatherings. If passed and upheld, the bill would’ve also allowed prayer and creationism in public schools, and permitted lawmakers to funnel tax dollars to their preferred churches.
Of course, the bill never would have survived the courts because its wacky theory of the Establishment Clause is held exclusively by a few fringe libertarians, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Nor did it stand a real chance of passing either chamber. But it is illuminating because it further reveals just how vigorously Ford supports religious supremacy over state affairs. His marriage equality nullification bill states that Obergefell “exceeds the authority of the Court relative to the decree of Almighty God that ‘a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,’ ” citing the book of Genesis. In other words, he and his co-sponsors wish to impose their religious view of marriage upon everybody else. Luckily, the Constitution bars them from doing so. But it’s pretty clear that these gentlemen don’t put a lot of stock in our founding charter anyway.