The US Senate on November 29 passed the Respect for Marriage Act 61-36, culminating a bipartisan push in the upper chamber to solidify protections for LGBTQ and interracial married couples across the United States.
The Respect for Marriage Act would protect same-sex marriages and interracial marriages by requiring legally performed marriages to be recognized across the nation, but states would not be required to perform marriages if the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling is ever overturned. The bill also formally repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, the now-defunct Clinton-era law that limited the federal government’s recognition of marriage to one man and one woman.
The bill now returns to the House of Representatives, which easily passed a slightly different version of the legislation over the summer with dozens of Republican votes. The bill had a more challenging path forward in the divided Senate, where out lesbian Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in a successful campaign to recruit enough GOP votes — 12 — to smother the threat of a filibuster. They had limited time given the need to pass the bill through the lower house again before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in the new year.
The 12 Republicans who voted for the bill were Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Todd Young of Indiana. Democrat Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is busy campaigning for his upcoming runoff contest, was absent, along with Republicans Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
The quest to generate enough GOP support required lawmakers to agree on a bipartisan amendment to the bill stipulating that religious liberty protections outlined by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would remain intact and that non-profit religious groups would not be required to provide marriage services. The law further clarifies that individuals or entities cannot be denied tax-exempt status, grants, contracts, loans, licenses, and more for opposing marriage equality. It also includes language saying that the federal government would not be required to recognize polygamous marriages.
The House is expected to move quickly on the bill and President Joe Biden has vowed to sign it when it reaches his desk.
“With today’s bipartisan Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, the United States is on the brink of reaffirming a fundamental truth: Love is love, and Americans should have the right to marry the person they love,” Biden said in a written statement moments after the bill passed. “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled.”
The bill’s final passage in the upper house came one day after a procedural vote took place on November 28 following a deal with Republicans to hold votes on three amendments. The procedural vote took longer than expected; two GOP lawmakers who eventually voted for the bill — Lummis and Young — faced fierce pressure from angry right-wingers, but they were not deterred. And even as some religious groups and leaders criticized the bill, the Mormon Church and others welcomed the legislation. On November 28, 21 religious groups delivered a joint letter to Baldwin and Collins voicing support for the law and urging the upper house “to adopt the bipartisan amendment in full…”
“As faith-based organizations, we recognize that the First Amendment right to religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy,” the letter said. “The bipartisan substitute amendment provides important clarification around the interaction between the Respect for Marriage Act and the robust religious freedom protections guaranteed under federal law.”
Baldwin, speaking on the Senate floor just before the vote took place, acknowledged the countless couples who are in same-sex marriages and interracial marriages and praised them for setting an example for others by living their true authentic lives.
“By passing this bill, we are saying that the American government and people see them and respect them,” Baldwin said.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, wearing the same tie he wore to his out lesbian daughter’s wedding, also spoke on the Senate floor ahead of the vote as he encouraged his colleagues to support the bill. He underscored his own personal connection to the issue, describing his daughter’s wedding as “one of the happiest moments” of his life. He voiced similar sentiments on November 18 when he led a rally for the bill at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan.
“For millions of Americans, today is a very good day — an important day — and a day that’s been a long time coming,” Schumer said. “Today the long but inexorable march towards greater equality advances forward.”
The Respect for Marriage Act emerged this year over concerns surrounding the rightward tilt of the Supreme Court. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have expressed opposition to marriage equality in the past, and the court’s ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization brought even more urgency to the issue over the summer.
The scramble to solidify marriage rights, however, appears to have delayed the years-long effort to prioritize the Equality Act, a federal bill that would build on the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County and amend Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across areas including housing, public education, public accommodations, federal funding, credit, and the jury system.