House passes Respect for Marriage Act, sending it to Biden

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Washington — The House on Thursday approved legislation that provides federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages, sending the landmark bill to President Biden's desk for his signature and capping a decades-long shift in Americans' attitudes toward gay marriage.

Called the Respect for Marriage Act, the measure won bipartisan support in the Democratic-led House, after the lower chamber passed this summer a version of the bill with backing from 47 Republicans. The House vote to give final approval to the legislation was 258 to 169, with one Republican voting "present." Thirty-nine GOP lawmakers joined all Democrats in supporting the bill.

Mr. Biden said the measure's passage will provide peace off mind to LGBTQI+ and interracial couples now guaranteed federal protections, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court's June decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which was the catalyst for Congress taking up the bill.

"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," he said in a statement.

The measure is likely to be one of the last significant legislative accomplishments from the Democratic House, and one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's final acts as speaker, before the party turns over control of the lower chamber to Republicans with the start of the new Congress in January.

"Today, we stand up for the values the vast majority of Americans hold dear, a belief in the dignity, beauty and divinity, 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 on the House floor.

The California Democrat noted the full-circle nature of the vote: one of her final acts during her first term as speaker was passing legislation repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, and she will close her tenure as speaker now with the Respect for Marriage Act.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi conducts a bill enrollment ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. / Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi conducts a bill enrollment ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. / Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The House vote came after the Senate cleared the legislation in a 61 to 36 vote that included support from 12 Republicans. The plan won broader backing from GOP senators after the initial House-passed bill was revised to include an amendment providing religious liberty protections.

Mr. Biden highlighted the bipartisan coalition in Congress who helped usher the marriage equality bill through both chambers, saying their efforts "showed that it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together to safeguard our most fundamental rights."

The Respect for Marriage Act was among the first legislative steps taken by the House in the wake of the Supreme Court's June decision rolling back the constitutional right to an abortion. Concerned by a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas that urged the court to reconsider other landmark cases, including the 2015 decision recognizing the right to same-sex marriage, Democrats moved swiftly to enshrine marriage equality into federal law.

The bill repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits and recognition to same-sex couples, and it safeguards marriages by requiring that valid marriages are recognized regardless of "sex, race, ethnicity or national origin."

After Senate Republicans expressed concerns the initial plan would infringe on religious freedom, a bipartisan group in the Senate brokered a deal on changes to the bill ensuring nonprofit religious groups will not be required to provide services, facilities or goods for the celebration of a same-sex marriage, and protecting religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution and federal law. The bipartisan amendment also makes clear that the bill doesn't authorize the U.S. government to recognize polygamous marriages.

The agreement on the revised legislation was crucial because it produced the Republican support needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, clearing the way for the legislation's final passage.

The passage of the bill — particularly with bipartisan majorities — is a watershed for the LGBTQ rights movement and demonstrates the shifting views by the American public on same-sex marriage. A June 2021 Gallup poll found that support for gay marriage reached a record high.

But it also demonstrated the rising concerns among Democrats that other rights guaranteed by past Supreme Court decisions could be under threat by the high court's expanded conservative majority. In addition to passing the marriage equality bill, the House also passed legislation aimed at restoring abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and protecting access to birth control. Neither of those bills, however, would clear the 50-50 Senate.

While the Supreme Court in 2015 recognized the right to same-sex marriage in its landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, the legislation approved by Congress provides additional safeguards for marriage equality.

The opposition from Republicans in both chambers also demonstrates the strength of the party's conservative base, which staunchly objects to same-sex marriage. Many conservative organizations urged Republicans to vote against the legislation, and Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, said on the House floor that the bill was the "wrong way to go."

Despite the public's embrace of marriage equality, hate crimes against Asian-Americans, Jewish people and LGBTQ people have risen in some major U.S. cities this year. Five people were fatally shot and 17 others were wounded at a shooting at a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the suspect was charged with 305 criminal counts, including hate crime and murder on Tuesday.

While momentum initially built behind the marriage equality plan after it was introduced in July, movement through the Senate was put on hold until after the November midterm elections at the request of Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and the bipartisan group of senators involved in talks over the plan.

The Senate, however, then moved to advance the bill swiftly after the deal on religious liberty protections was passed.

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