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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden signs bill to protect same-sex marriage

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) appears before President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

By Michael D. Shear

President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law earlier this week, mandating federal recognition for same-sex marriages and capping his own personal evolution toward embracing gay rights over the course of a four-decade political career.

In an elaborate signing ceremony on the South Lawn, complete with musical performances from Cyndi Lauper and Sam Smith, Biden told thousands of supporters and lawmakers that the new law represents a rare moment of bipartisanship when Democrats and Republicans came together.

“My fellow Americans, the road to this moment has been long, but those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up,” Biden told the crowd, which White House officials later said had 5,300 people, before signing the bill to loud cheers. He added: “We got it done. We’re going to continue the work ahead. I promise you.”

The landmark legislation, passed by a bipartisan coalition in Congress, officially erases the Defense of Marriage Act, which a quarter of a century ago formally defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The new law prohibits states from denying the validity of out-of-state marriages based on sex, race or ethnicity.

The gathering on the crisp, December afternoon, with the White House as a backdrop, was especially significant for Democratic lawmakers, for whom it could be the last major bill signing of their tenure given that Republican control of the House begins next month.

For Biden, who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act as a senator in 1996 and wavered on letting gay men and lesbians serve in the military, the signing ceremony was an indication of how much the president has changed when it comes to championing LGBTQ equality.

It is also another example of how Biden’s gradual transformation as a politician more broadly has matched the evolution of his own party since he started in public life as a junior senator on Jan. 3, 1973.

His views on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and sentencing reform — which once put him on the more conservative side of his party’s ideological spectrum — now more firmly match positions that have galvanized Democrats and even many Republicans over the past several years.

The country continues to have deep ideological fissures. But in some areas, there are now new and different majorities expressing support for societal and political norms that were far different a generation ago, shifting over time much as the president has.

In many ways, his arc is the country’s arc.

Biden, 80, was raised in a time when much of the country was less tolerant of people’s sexual orientations. His policy choices in the Senate reflected those times, often siding with those who proposed restrictions, or limits, on gay men and lesbians. He supported a measure that restricted how homosexuality was taught in schools, one of many defeats for the equality movement.

During his 2008 vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin, Biden said he opposed “redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.” But people close to Biden said he kept an open mind about the issue and was a keen observer of the ways that society was changing around him — and slowly changed his positions.

“I do respect and appreciate that he is someone that can admit that his views were outdated in the past and that he has evolved on the subject and is now an outspoken champion and advocate,” said Kelley Robinson, president of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization in Washington. “This is a matter of policy and politicians catching up to where the people already are.”

Polls show a sea change in public opinion across the political spectrum in the past decade, with nearly 70% of Americans now saying they support the right of same-sex couples to be married, with all the rights that heterosexual couples have under the law.

The president was unequivocal in his support for the law he signed Tuesday, saying earlier this year that he was confident that “Republicans and Democrats can work together to secure the fundamental right of Americans to marry the person they love.”

But it is also a mark of ongoing fear that newfound gay rights may be fragile. The push for passage of the law was driven in part by the Supreme Court opinion overturning abortion rights, in which Justice Clarence Thomas raised the possibility of using the same logic to reconsider decisions protecting marriage equality and contraception rights.

Opponents of the legislation argued that it would undermine family values in the United States and restrict the religious freedoms of people who do not believe that same-sex marriage is moral.

Proponents of the new law insisted that Congress needed to be proactive in ensuring that a future Supreme Court ruling would not invalidate same-sex marriages around the country. In 2015, the court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that all states must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples just as they would marriages between a man and a woman.

Once a fiercely divisive political issue, the broad-based acceptance for same-sex marriages was the backdrop for a rare show of bipartisanship in Congress, where 61 senators and 258 House members voted to send the Respect for Marriage Act to Biden’s desk for his signature.

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