‘Love wins again’: Senate passes bill to protect same-sex and interracial marriage

"Today we celebrate this win, tomorrow we continue to fight for the justice and equity that every American deserves."

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SOURCECommon Dreams
Image Credit: Noah Berger/Associated Press

Rights groups and other supporters of marriage equality celebrated Tuesday after 12 Senate Republicans joined with all Democrats present to pass protections for same-sex and interracial partnerships.

“Today we celebrate this win, tomorrow we continue to fight for the justice and equity that every American deserves.”

The Respect for Marriage (RFM) Act does not confirm the right of same-sex couples to marry nationwide, as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Obergefell v. Hodges, but rather requires states to recognize their marriage licenses. It also does not block states from banning same-sex marriage if the high court’s 2015 ruling is overturned—as Justice Clarence Thomas teased in his concurring opinion for the June decision that ended national abortion rights.

While some have criticized the legislation for falling short of what’s needed and pandering to religious groups, the 61-36 Senate vote was still widely heralded as historic progress. The amended version is expected to again pass the Democrat-held House—which initially passed the bill in July—before reaching the desk of President Joe Biden, who reaffirmed that he “will promptly and proudly sign it into law.”

“As the votes in Congress attest, LGBTQ+ people belong and are part of our families, our communities, and our country. This is a critical victory on the road to the day when all people are fully protected from discrimination and have the freedom to make decisions about their lives and families,” said Mary Bonauto, senior director of civil rights and legal strategies at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), who argued the Obergefell case.

Lambda Legal chief legal officer Jennifer C. Pizer declared that “today we are witness to the imminent final erasure of the discriminatory federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which has been an ugly stain on our federal statute books since 1996.”

As Pizer explained:

Key parts of that hurtful law haven’t been enforceable since 2013 thanks to our prior, much more fair-minded U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in United States v. Windsor. And state bans on same-sex couples marrying have been unenforceable since that court’s… Obergefell v. Hodges decision. But even if largely dormant since Obergefell, those marriage bans still live on the books in many states. With the current extremist orientation of the court raising concerns that Obergefell may be next on the court’s hit list, married same-sex couples have faced the possibility that their marriages would once again be recognized in one state, but not another.

The Respect for Marriage Act addresses that concern. While not perfect, this legislation ensures marriages solemnized validly anywhere in these United States are valid everywhere in our country without government discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin. We applaud 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.

Retiring Republican Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) did not vote on Tuesday; nor did Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), who is campaigning for a December 6 runoff against GOP challenger Herschel Walker—a former football player who earlier this month delivered an “unhinged transphobic speech” in the aftermath of a deadly mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado.

The bill has been spearheaded by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). The other nine Republicans who voted for it are Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), and Todd Young (Ind.).

“By passing this bill, the Senate is sending a message that every American needs to hear: No matter who you are or who you love, you too deserve dignity and equal treatment under the law. As the chamber knows, this is personal to me. And the first people I will call when this bill passes will be my daughter and her wife,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“None of this was inevitable. At the urging of my colleagues, we took the calculated risk of holding off on a vote back in September, because they believed with more time we could build enough bipartisan support to push this bill over the finish line. Today, we have vindication the wait was well worth it,” he added. “I thank my colleagues for their work, and above all I want to thank the American people, the vast majority of whom understand deep in their hearts that the inexorable march towards equality is what America is all about.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director Imani Rupert-Gordon. “For the first time in our collective history, Congress has taken a concrete step to protect marriage equality in federal law.”

“While Congress has taken an important step toward,” Rupert-Gordon added, “it is incumbent on all of us to continue to push for passage of the comprehensive Equality Act, which would protect LGBTQ individuals and our families from discrimination in all aspects of our everyday lives. Today we celebrate this win, tomorrow we continue to fight for the justice and equity that every American deserves.”

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Rights Project, similarly celebrated the development while also urging lawmakers to go further—even though action in the next two years in unlikely, with the GOP set to seize control of the House in January after winning a narrow majority earlier this month.

“For the last seven years, LGBTQ families across the country have been able to build their lives around their right to marriage equality,” said Esseks. “The Respect for Marriage Act will go a long way to ensure an increasingly radical Supreme Court does not threaten this right, but LGBTQ rights are already under attack nationwide.”

“Transgender people especially have had their safety, dignity, and health care threatened by lawmakers across the country, including by members of this Congress,” he stressed. “While we welcome the historic vote on this measure, members of Congress must also fight like trans lives depend on their efforts because trans lives do.”

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