Karine Jean-Pierre
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House Passes Bill to Protect Marriage Equality; Will Senate Follow?

Queer wedding couple

The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday passed a bill aimed at protecting equal marriage rights for queer and interracial couples.

The Respect for Marriage Act passed by a vote of 267 to 157, with 47 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting it, The Washington Post reports. Whether it will pass the Senate remains uncertain, though, and a vote has not been scheduled in that chamber.

Supporters of the legislation intend it as a safeguard if the Supreme Court overturns its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established marriage equality nationwide. In the recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should revisit the marriage equality ruling.

Other rulings on individual rights are at risk as well, including contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut), same-sex intimacy (Lawrence v. Texas), and interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia). Thomas mentioned the first two in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling, which overturned Roe, but not Loving — he is in an interracial marriage. Still, if other rights are threatened, the right to interracial marriage could be. The reversal of any of these rulings would allow states to revoke these rights, resulting in a patchwork of laws across the nation, as there is now on abortion.

The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which has not been enforceable since the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in Windsor v. U.S. in 2013 but remains on the books. It denied federal recognition to same-sex marriages and allowed states to deny recognition to such marriages from other states.

It would also enshrine marriage equality in federal law and assure that any marriage valid in the couple’s home state would be considered valid by the U.S. government, no matter the race or gender of the spouses.

And it would provide other legal safeguards by barring anyone acting under a state law from denying full faith and credit to a marriage based on the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of the spouses. The U.S. attorney general would have the power to enforce this, and anyone harmed by such a denial would have a right to sue.

“This is about fundamental fairness in our system, assuring that people can marry the person they love,” Rep. David Cicilline, chairman of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, said on the House floor. To Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s objection that the legislation was unnecessary, Cicilline said Jordan should go ahead and vote for it. “Don’t hide behind that to justify your refusal to vote for marriage equality,” he said. The ultraconservative Jordan did not vote for it, however.

Rep. Mondaire Jones, who like Cicilline is gay, talked about the issue being personal for him. He was living with friends and closeted when New York State lawmakers passed marriage equality in 2011, he recalled. "I closed the door to my room and cried tears of joy by my lonesome," he said. Then he mentioned the time four years later, when the Obergefell ruling took marriage equality nationwide.

“I remember being struck then by the words of Justice Kennedy, who authored the opinion: 'It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask [only] for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.’” 

As for the bill's chances in the Senate, that chamber has a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats (including two independents allied with them), with Vice President Kamala Harris having the power to break a tie. However, the bill may run afoul of the filibuster rule, under which it takes the votes of 60 senators to end debate on an issue and move to a vote on the legislation itself. The filibuster can be lifted for certain bills.

Democrats are also trying to protect other rights threatened by the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 majority of conservative justices. The House passed a bill last week enshrining abortion rights in federal law, with just three Republicans voting yes. The body is expected to vote on the right to contraception later this week.

Civil rights groups praised the House's action. A sampling of statements:

“The Defense of Marriage Act — which shamefully excluded legally married same-sex couples from accessing the federal rights, benefits, and obligations of marriage — is a black mark upon our nation that needs to be erased from our code of law. The Respect for Marriage Act is an opportunity to right this legislative wrong by replacing this black mark with an inclusive law that standardizes the mechanism for evaluating when a marriage should be given federal recognition and which affirms that public acts, records, and judicial proceedings should be honored across this country. The fact that this bill passed with strong bipartisan support — earning the votes of 47 Republicans — proves that marriage equality is supported by a wide swath of the American people, and is not going anywhere. We strongly urge the Senate to follow the example set by their colleagues in the House and vote to pass this bill.” — Joni Madison, interim president, Human Rights Campaign

“There is a unique need for this federal law in the South. For the one-third of LGBTQ Americans who live in the South, the Respect for Marriage Act is vital legislation. All LGBTQ Southerners live in a state with laws prohibiting the freedom to marry — laws that are unenforceable because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling. Extreme anti-LGBTQ forces are working at every level to erode LGBTQ equality, and if they prevail in having Obergefell revisited or overturned, these families and marriages would be at risk. We need to be doing everything we can to protect LGBTQ equality in this unprecedented era of attack —and now, the Senate should follow the lead of the House by passing the Respect for Marriage Act.” — Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director, Campaign for Southern Equality

"GLAD not only won the first marriage case in any state, but also brought the first coordinated challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act over a decade ago. We saw the harms LGBTQ married families faced every day as the status of their family relationships shifted because they crossed state lines or because the federal government categorically disrespected their marriages. The Supreme Court rightly found unconstitutional both the federal disrespect part of DOMA in Windsor and the interstate nonrecognition aspect in Obergefell. It is long past time for the Congress to remove the entirety of this harmful law from the books." — Janson Wu, executive director, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders

“NCLR applauds the House of Representatives for removing the mean-spirited and unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act from our nation’s statutes. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA a decade ago, today’s action by the House to repeal it sends a strong message that our nation must move beyond targeting LGBTQ people for political gain. In this moment of political polarization, it is heartening to see bipartisan support for the fundamental principles of equality and security for all families. We urge the Senate to follow suit and swiftly pass the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.” — Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director, National Center for Lesbian Rights

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