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Ron Johnson flips on gay marriage bill after saying he saw ‘no reason to oppose it’

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has changed his stance on federal legislation that would codify the right to same-sex marriage, telling voters he would not support the Respect for Marriage Act “in its current state.” His remarks come about two months after he issued a statement that said he saw “no reason to oppose” the bill, which would require that someone be considered married in any state as long as the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed.

Speaking last week to a group of conservative voters in Wisconsin, Johnson told an audience member that he issued his July statement only “to get [the media] off my back” about the issue, according to audio obtained by Heartland Signal.

Johnson said he had been “hounded” by congressional reporters for his opinion on the Respect for Marriage Act, which Democrats had teed up as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurrence with that decision that the high court should also examine previous rulings that legalized the right for married couples to buy and use contraception without government restriction (Griswold v. Connecticut), same-sex relationships (Lawrence v. Texas) and marriage equality (Obergefell v. Hodges).

“You have to understand the process here. You’re walking down the subway in the Capitol and all of a sudden you get descended [upon] by national press,” Johnson told an audience member at the Sept. 1 meeting. “ … You just get hounded on this crap, right? So, just to get ’em off my backs, I wrote a press release. And I said I always supported civil unions, never felt that we needed to do anything other than that, but then the Supreme Court ruled [on abortion], and I just considered the matter settled.”

Johnson added that he did not think the Supreme Court would ever overturn Obergefell v. Hodges because of stare decisis, the notion that precedents should not be overturned without strong reason — even though Roe v. Wade had been overturned despite several justices also agreeing that it was “settled as precedent.”

“Justice Thomas is probably right that [Obergefell] was wrongly decided, but that’s a different issue as to whether or not the Supreme Court will overturn it. They never will,” Johnson said. “ … With all those caveats, I said at this point, I don’t see reason to oppose it — to get them off my back, okay?”

Johnson then said he actually would not support the Respect for Marriage Act “in its current state” because of concerns over religious liberties, but said he and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) were working together on “just a smokin’ amendment” that would protect those liberties.

“We’ll see where it goes from there,” he said. “ … But at the same time, I don’t want to see millions of lives disrupted either. To me, that was a ruling that was healed. Let it go, okay? Move on, okay? We’ve got enough problems.”

The audio concluded with Johnson taking a shot at fellow Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), who has teamed up with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to push for passage of the same-sex marriage bill. Baldwin, the first lesbian woman elected to the Senate, has long advocated for LGBTQ rights.

“I’m not happy with the Baldwins of the world who are just opening that wound and opening up that debate, okay?” Johnson said.

Asked about his comments Thursday, Baldwin stressed the importance of passing the bill.

“The Supreme Court overthrowing Roe v. Wade has brought into questioning the same legal reasoning that has been used in Loving v. Virginia and marriage equality,” she said. “People in real marriages are feeling a great deal of uncertainty right now and that why we want to pass the Respect for Marriage Act.”

Johnson’s office has accused Democrats of fearmongering over a “settled” issue. The senator dismissed a reporter’s question Thursday about lives that were upended after Roe was overturned.

“Seems like you can still get abortions all over the place,” Johnson said.

The Respect for Marriage Act would require that someone be considered married in any state as long as the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed. The bill would also repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. That law has remained on the books despite being declared unconstitutional by the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

The bill would also protect interracial marriages, prohibiting states from not recognizing a marriage “on the basis of the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of those individuals.”

“Individuals in same-sex and interracial marriages need, and should have, the confidence that their marriages are legal,” Baldwin and Collins wrote in a joint op-ed for The Washington Post on Tuesday. “We all have family, friends, co-workers or neighbors who are in these marriages. These partnerships deserve fairness and the recognition, stability and rights of marriage. They are an accepted part of American life.”

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