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Opinion The Respect for Marriage Act is modest but worth celebrating

From left, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) attend a news conference at the U.S. Capitol after the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

“Who do you love?” When Joe Biden said more than 10 years ago that this “simple proposition,” not whether a relationship was heterosexual or same-sex, should determine who could marry whom, it was considered a gaffe. Now, to the overwhelming majority of Americans, it sounds like common sense.

The Senate’s passage this week of the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act (RMA) is worth celebrating — even if the legislation is more modest than many advocates might prefer. The bill is essentially an insurance policy to, as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) put it, assuage the “anxieties and fears” of same-sex and interracial couples after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Justice Clarence Thomas cultivated these concerns in a concurrence indicating his desire for the Supreme Court to reexamine previous rights-enshrining rulings, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which today requires all states to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The RMA, now headed for a vote and near-certain passage in the House, doesn’t include that same requirement. This means that if the justice gets his wish, the 35 states that have same-sex marriage bans still on the books can begin to deny licenses again.

The good news, however, is plentiful. The chances that the Supreme Court would overturn Obergefell seem low, considering the lack of interest shown by the other conservatives on the court. And the RMA does ensure that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages no matter what the judiciary decides. More than that, it mandates that even states with bans recognize marriages made in states without. This is understandably unsatisfying to many couples, who rightly believe that they should be allowed to say their vows wherever they choose, rather than have to travel across borders for the official proceeding. But it is far preferable to depriving the couples of those benefits altogether, as happened under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had remained on the books despite being made unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and which would be formally repealed by the RMA.

Jonathan Capehart: Gee, thanks for this tiny step to protect my same-sex marriage

The changes that have taken place since the days of DOMA are remarkable. According to Gallup, whereas 27 percent of the public supported same-sex marriage in 1996, 71 percent do now. Even the differences between today and a mere two decades ago are striking. Once upon a not-so-distant time, the Republican Party saw same-sex marriage as a wedge to divide Democratic Party voters. Indeed, many leading Democratic politicians were on record opposing same-sex marriage. Now, the situation has reversed. Members of the GOP risk losing more moderate voters by refusing to support the legalization of same-sex marriage. The RMA might be mostly symbolic, but it’s a symbol of progress worth saluting. Still, there remain other things to do — beginning with codifying Roe v. Wade into law. The threat to same-sex marriage was a theoretical one; abortion as a constitutional right has already been eviscerated by the court.

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