Bill to protect same-sex marriage rights clears Congress
By Annie Karni
The House late last week gave final approval to legislation to mandate federal recognition for same-sex marriages, with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voting in favor of the measure in the waning days of the Democratic-led Congress.
With a vote of 258-169, with one member voting “present,” the landmark legislation cleared Congress, sending it to President Joe Biden to be signed into law and capping an improbable path for a measure that only months ago appeared to have little chance at enactment.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the tally triumphantly, banging the gavel repeatedly as if to applaud as members of the House cheered.
“Today, we stand up for the values the vast majority of Americans hold dear: a belief in the dignity, beauty and divinity — spark of divinity — in every person, and abiding respect for love so powerful that it binds two people together,” Pelosi said in a speech from the House floor before the vote.
In a statement, Biden called the action by Congress “a critical step to ensure that Americans have the right to marry the person they love.”
The measure’s success reflected a broader cultural and political shift on the issue of same-sex marriage, which only a decade ago was regarded by members of both parties as divisive and risky terrain. It has become so broadly accepted in American society that it can now generate decisive bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress. In the years since, same-sex marriage has become widely accepted by members of both parties, and polls show that more than 70% of voters support same-sex marriage.
It was the second time in five months that the House had taken up the Respect for Marriage Act. Last summer, 47 House Republicans joined Democrats in support of the legislation, a level of GOP enthusiasm for same-sex marriage rights that surprised and delighted its supporters. That set off an intensive effort among a bipartisan group of proponents in the Senate — boosted quietly by a coalition of influential Republican donors and operatives, some of them gay — to find the at least 10 Republican votes necessary in that chamber to move it forward.
In the Senate, the legislation was revised to address concerns among some Republicans that it would punish or restrict the religious freedom of institutions that refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. That version passed last month, forcing it back to the House for a second vote to approve the changes.
But the revisions appeared to have failed to build support for the bill among Republicans in the House; on Thursday, 39 Republicans voted “yes,” less than one-fifth of the party’s contingent in the House, after a debate in which many GOP lawmakers condemned the legislation as immoral.
The push to pass the legislation began after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his opinion in the June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to abortion, that the court also “should reconsider” precedents enshrining marriage equality and access to contraception.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first lesbian elected to Congress, who was the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said the new law would “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.”
“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,” Baldwin added.
Baldwin was instrumental in transforming what began as a messaging exercise for Democrats eager to highlight social issues during the midterm elections into a serious legislative push. The unexpectedly high number of House Republicans supporting the bill in July — nearly one-quarter of them — propelled her bid to cut a bipartisan deal in the Senate, but she urged Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, to wait until after the elections to bring it to a vote.
The strategy drew the ire of some progressives who were eager to exact a political price from Republican opponents of the measure, but it yielded the hoped-for result: The legislation passed the Senate last month with the support of 12 Republicans, exceeding the 60-vote threshold that has frustrated many a bipartisan bill.
On the House floor Thursday, a parade of Democrats — some of them gay, many speaking about their own same-sex marriages — stood to make the case for the measure. It repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and allowed states to refuse to honor same-sex marriages performed in other states. Once signed into law, the Respect for Marriage Act will prohibit states from denying the validity of an out-of-state marriage based on sex, race or ethnicity.
Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of the first openly gay members of Congress, was on hand to celebrate what he described as the demise of yet another ignominious piece of policy, referring to the Defense of Marriage Act by its initials.
“I was here for the birth of DOMA, so I am very grateful to be able to be here for the funeral,” Frank said. “And it’s kind of a New Orleans moment; we are tooting our horns for the funeral — a much happier occasion than the birth.”
Still, despite the bipartisan nature of the vote, the majority of Republicans remained vocally opposed. During debate Thursday, they argued that the measure was a response to a nonexistent threat to same-sex marriage rights and condemned it as part of a plot by Democrats to upend traditional values, to the detriment of the country.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats had “conjured up” an “unfounded fear” that the Supreme Court was on the brink of nullifying same-sex marriage rights and other precedents and said the measure still lacked sufficient protections for organizations that do not consider such unions valid.
“It is dangerous,” Jordan said of the legislation, “and takes the country in the wrong direction.”
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., derided the measure as the “disrespect for marriage act” and said its consideration was “a sobering indication of the erosion of the moral values that have made this nation great.”
“This bill certainly disrespects God’s definition of marriage,” Good said, “and his definition is the only one that really matters.”
In the end, eight Republicans who had backed the legislation in July abandoned it Thursday. Reps. Cliff Bentz of Oregon; Mario Diaz-Balart, Brian Mast and Maria Salazar of Florida; Dan Meuser and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania; and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey switched their votes to “no.” Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah, who supported the bill over the summer, voted “present.”
Two Republicans who previously opposed the measure switched to supporting it: Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, who lost her reelection bid in an August primary, and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.
In a condition that Republican backers in the Senate insisted upon, the measure would guarantee that religious organizations would not be required to provide any goods or services for the celebration of any marriage and could not lose tax-exempt status or other benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex unions.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the lead Republican negotiator, said those provisions had been a key breakthrough.
“We’ve proven that it is not about rights for the LGBTQ community versus rights for churches, mosques, synagogues, temples,” Collins said. “We can advance both, and that’s what this legislation has done today.”