The House on Thursday passed landmark legislation that would enshrine marriage equality in federal law, granting protections to same-sex and interracial couples and clearing the way for President Biden’s signature.
The House had already passed an earlier version of the Respect for Marriage Act in July, but the Senate delayed its vote on the bill until after the midterm elections. Late last month, the Senate passed the bill with a bipartisan amendment to allay some Republicans’ concerns about religious liberty. The amended bill passed the Senate in a 61-36 vote, with 12 Republican senators joining Democrats in favor of it.
In a 258-169 vote, the House on Thursday passed the bill with the amendment, which clarifies that the federal government would not be authorized to recognize polygamous marriages and confirms that nonprofit religious organizations would not be required to provide “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.” Thirty-nine Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the measure.
At a bill enrollment ceremony after the vote, members of the House and Senate celebrated as Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) signed and formalized the bill’s passage.
“We can put to rest the worries of millions of loving couples who are concerned that someday an activist Supreme Court may take their rights and freedoms away,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. “We are giving these loving couples the certainty that their marriages are legal and that they will continue to have the same rights and responsibilities and benefits of every other married couple.”
Biden has signaled his support, saying that ensuring federal protections for marriage equality is among his legislative priorities in Congress’s lame-duck session.
“The House’s bipartisan passage of the Respect for Marriage Act — by a significant margin — will give peace of mind to millions of LGBTQI+ and interracial couples who are now guaranteed the rights and protections to which they and their children are entitled,” Biden said in a statement after the House passed the bill. He added that after the Supreme Court in June ended the right to abortion after nearly 50 years, “Congress has restored a measure of security to millions of marriages and families. They have also provided hope and dignity to millions of young people across this country who can grow up knowing that their government will recognize and respect the families they build.”
The vote underscores a nearly three-decade evolution, from 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed legislation that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, to the 2004 election when President George W. Bush used the issue to energize GOP voters, to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage bill
The Respect for Marriage Act would not force states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but would require that people be considered married in any state as long as the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed.
The bill also would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. In addition to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, it allowed states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. That law has remained on the books despite being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor and its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry.
In a guest op-ed for The Washington Post, Pelosi recalled how, in her first speech on the House floor in 1987, she declared that “we must take leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS.”
“Just as I began my career fighting for LGBTQ communities, I am overjoyed that one of the final bills I will sign as speaker will be the Respect for Marriage Act: ensuring the federal government will never again stand in the way of marrying the person you love,” Pelosi wrote.
Democrats have warned since June that federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages, as well as other rights, could be at risk after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years had guaranteed the right to an abortion in the United States.
In his June concurrence with the decision to overturn Roe, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the high court should also examine previous rulings that legalized the right to buy and use contraception without government restriction (Griswold v. Connecticut), same-sex relationships (Lawrence v. Texas) and marriage equality (Obergefell v. Hodges).
“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote. “Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”
Thomas’s opinion set off alarm bells among proponents of marriage equality, who pointed out that if the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefell, as it did Roe, then the right to same-sex marriage would similarly fall to the states. Currently, 35 states have statutes or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage that would take effect if Obergefell were overturned, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ equality.
Still, a bipartisan group of senators negotiated to delay its vote on the bill until after the midterm elections and to work on the religious liberty amendment. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was part of that bipartisan group, praised her colleagues for their relentless work to get the bill passed, recalling how on Thanksgiving Day she was basting a turkey and texting lawmakers about the bill at the same time.
Former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who co-founded the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, made surprise remarks at the bill enrollment ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act.
“I was here for the birth of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], so I am very grateful to be able to be here for the funeral,” Frank said. “It’s kind of a New Orleans moment. We are tooting our horns for the funeral, a much happier occasion than the birth.”
Frank also praised Baldwin for standing against criticism for not pressing ahead with a Senate vote on the bill — before the midterm elections — in order to maximize its advantage as a political issue, even if it didn’t pass.
“Tammy, through her own life experience, understood what troubles this caused for same-sex married couples all over the country. And she understood that resolving those fears was much more important than any political issue,” Frank said. “She stood up and she was proven right. And I hope people will now take this as an example of responsible legislating, not being panicked by people who have more emotion than intelligence on an issue.”
Republicans who opposed the bill decried it Thursday as an affront to “biblical” definitions of marriage. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) warned without evidence that it could lead to the legality of “polygamy, bestiality, child marriage, or whatever!” in the future.
GOP lawmakers also played down the threat to marriage equality and said the bill was unnecessary, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion rights.
“The Democrats want Americans to believe that the Supreme Court, at any moment … could step in and overturn its opinions in Obergefell and Loving. It’s just not true. The Supreme Court is not poised to overturn its opinions in either of those decisions,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on the House floor.
Seven Republican lawmakers voted no Thursday after supporting the bill in July. Two GOP lawmakers — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) — switched from no to yes. One member, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), supported the bill in July but voted present on Thursday.
“The first version also didn’t have the religious freedom language, which was key,” Gallagher said after the vote, explaining his switch.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who switched from a yes to a no vote, said his objections this time were mostly about the process by which the bill was returned to the House. In July, when he supported the bill, Mast told The Post that he “wasn’t going to get mixed up in the politics of it.”
“I could give a rat’s caboose who somebody marries, relates with, falls in love with, anything else as a piece of it, their gender or anything else,” he said then.