The Senate Has Passed the Respect for Marriage Act

Dec 01, 22
The Senate Has Passed the Respect for Marriage Act

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On Tuesday, the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), advancing key protections for same-sex and interracial marriages one step closer to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The upper chamber of Congress voted 61-36 to pass the legislation, with 12 Republican senators voting in favor. Notably, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell voted against the RFMA. The bill will now head to the House of Representatives, which has already approved the legislation, for a final vote before receiving Biden’s signature.

The RFMA officially repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, which has technically been unenforceable since the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But the legislation stops short of requiring states to issues same-sex marriage licenses if the Supreme Court overturns Obergefell; rather, it would simply require those states to recognize a same-sex marriage if it was performed in another state where it was legal. The bill also provides extensive protections for “religious freedom,” including language stating that the act can’t be used to force religious institutions to provide goods or services for LGBTQ+ people and does not legalize polygamous marriage. 

Still, especially since Justice Clarence Thomas indicated earlier this year that he would be willing to revisit and even overturn Obergefell, the moderate protections that the RFMA provides come as a relief for many LGBTQ+ Americans. Advocates celebrated the historic move, with GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis saying that the passage of the legislation “sends a message of equal protection, dignity, and respect for all same-sex and interracial couples who want to share in the love and commitment of marriage.”

“As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families,” Ellis said in a statement. 

She also noted, however, that Congress still must bring the Equality Act, which would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people, to a vote. 

In a statement, Lambda Legal chief legal officer Jennifer C. Pizer acknowledged that the RFMA is “not perfect,” but nevertheless applauded “the bipartisan group that understood the urgency and worked hard to find the path to mitigate the harms in case the Court were to take the outrageous, discriminatory step of erasing the fundamental right to marry.”

“And because anti-LGBTQ discrimination remains widespread and harmful, we will need the Equality Act to follow the Respect for Marriage Act quickly into the U.S. Code,” she emphasized.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson referred to the legislation as “a much-needed victory for our community.” She added that there was “more work to do to fight with and for our transgender community, our BIPOC community, and our youngest community members with the same passion and energy that we brought to the fight for marriage equality.”

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