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Opinion Senators, pass the Respect for Marriage Act

The U.S. Capitol, seen from the Canon House Office Building, on July 21. (Tom Brenner/The Washington Post)

Even though 47 House Republicans joined with Democrats to pass a bill on marriage equality last week, many assumed a similar effort in the Senate would be dead in the water. But it is not — and reasonable senators should do everything in their power to pass it soon.

The Respect for Marriage Act would formally repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and woman. Although that definition was struck down in the courts, DOMA was never removed from the books. The new bill would also require state governments to recognize marriages legally performed in other states, and would give the attorney general the authority to bring civil action against figures who do not. It was written to encompass both same-sex marriage and interracial marriage.

Several Senate Republicans have already signaled support for the bill: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio) are co-sponsors, while Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) have suggested they would likely vote to approve it. Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) has said, though he believed it was “unnecessary,” he saw “no reason to oppose it.” These senators deserve credit for taking an early stance on the correct side, as do the 47 House Republicans who voted for it last week.

But the bill’s backers, including co-sponsors Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), need at least five more willing Republicans to get a filibuster-proof majority. Eight other GOP senators have indicated they would vote against it. The rest remain undecided or have not taken a public stance, according to CNN.

Some have complained the bill only codifies existing law and distracts from more pressing items, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) going so far as to call it a “stupid waste of time.” Yet, after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — and Justice Clarence Thomas’s unrestrained concurring opinion in the case — advocates worry that other precedents resting on the due process clause could be targeted next. This includes Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that enshrined the right to same-sex marriage across the country.

There might not be an immediate threat to Obergefell, but millions of LGBTQ Americans fear their hard-won right to marry whomever they love could at some point be taken away. This bill would relieve that uncertainty and enshrine their rights in the future.

It comes at a particularly trying time for the LGBTQ community. From Florida’s “don’t say gay” law barring teachers from bringing up sexuality and gender identity in classrooms, to Texas’s targeting of gender-affirming care for transgender adolescents, a number of jurisdictions have enacted policies designed to exclude and stigmatize. And right-wing activists and politicians are increasingly relying on dangerous rhetoric around sexuality in an attempt to stoke a culture war.

Encouragingly, most Americans do not agree with them. More than 70 percent say same-sex marriage should be recognized, according to a Gallup poll, up from 27 percent in 1996. This includes 55 percent of Republicans. Passing the Respect for Marriage Act would be politically popular. It would also be the moral, just thing to do. In a time of intolerance and partisanship, we hope at least 60 senators will recognize that.