Senate pushes historic bill to protect same-sex marriage

TThe Senate voted 62-37 on Wednesday to advance legislation codifying same-sex and interracial marriage protections, signaling the bill secured enough Republican votes to pass the landmark bill into federal law.

All 50 Democratic caucus members and 12 Republicans voted to advance the legislation, limiting debate on the measure and moving it closer to final passage. The decisive procedural vote comes after months of negotiations between a bipartisan group of senators — Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kirsten Sinema of Arizona, and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio and Tom Tillis of North Carolina — to craft an amendment that would secure the remaining Republican votes needed to reach the 60-vote threshold.

On Wednesday, Collins, Portman and Tillis along with their fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Cynthia Loomis of Wyoming, Mitt Romney of Utah, Richard Burr of Virginia, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Todd Young of Indiana and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia voted to move the bill to a final vote.

The vote is a major victory for the LGBTQ rights movement and shows how far the Republican Party and the country as a whole have come on the issue of same-sex marriage over the past decade. Gallup 2021 survey found that a record 70% of the US population supports same-sex marriage, including 83% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In 2013, only 53% of the US public and 30% of Republicans supported the issue. Bipartisan support for a bill protecting same-sex couples — considered unthinkable by many political strategists a decade ago — symbolizes the enduring success of the fight for marriage equality. After decades of fighting, it seems that for much of the American public, the issue is settled.

Read more: hhow the Republican Party evolved on same-sex marriage

Baldwin, who in 2013 became the first openly queer politician elected to the U.S. Senate, tells TIME that she has worked for years to make sure that “people in the LGBTQ community can protect their families in the same way, in which opposite-sex couples can’.

“In the early days it was fighting for things like domestic partnership laws and civil unions,” she continues. “I was very pleased to know that there is now a majority, I hope it will be a supermajority, in the Senate that wants to ensure that marriage equality continues.”

The legislation, titled the Respect for Marriage Act, repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, which legally defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Instead, the Respect for Marriage Act prohibits both the federal government and states from refusing to recognize valid marriages based on a couple’s “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

The bill does not codify the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges— which repealed DOMA and established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage — and does not require the state to issue marriage licenses that conflict with state law. Instead, it requires the federal government and all states to recognize a marriage between two people if it was legal in the state where it took place.

“The federal government relies on the states to regulate marriage through state laws,” Baldwin said when asked why the bill did not codify Obergefell in the law expressly. With the current Respect for Marriage Act, no state can ignore a same-sex marriage if it’s legal under a different state law — which wasn’t the case before 2015.

To get at least 10 Republicans on board, the bipartisan coalition of senators backing the bill added an amendment that would clarify that the law would not compel religious, non-profit organizations to provide services, accommodations, facilities or goods to celebrate a same-sex marriage. The amendment also reaffirms that existing religious freedom protections under the Constitution and federal law are not affected by the measure, and states that the bill would not allow the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages, after some conservative advocates argued it would. The amendment also states that the bill will not be used to deny or modify any benefits, including tax-exempt status, to an otherwise eligible person or organization.

Romney, who voted in favor of the bill, told TIME the amendment was “essential” to winning his vote, adding that it provides “key protections for religious freedom.” (Officials at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Tuesday night that the church supports the Respect for Marriage Act. It was a remarkable shift from the church, of which Romney is a prominent member, given that it supported the 2008 effort to ban same-sex marriage in California.) Portman, who supported the bill and was the first sitting Republican senator to support same-sex marriage in 2013, says he thinks the religious exemption language helped sway other Republicans to support the bill as well.

The US House of Representatives first passed a version of the bill in July, shortly after the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. LGBTQ advocates have sounded the alarm that Obergefell could then be overturned after Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion in Dobbs assuming he would like to visit again. The Respect for Marriage Act passed the House 267-157 on July 19, surprising some LGBTQ advocates by winning the support of 47 Republicans, including members of the leadership. After bipartisan passage in the House, a Senate vote on the measure was originally scheduled for early fall, but was abruptly postponed in mid-September after Baldwin’s coalition asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for more time to secure the required votes of the Republican Party.

“There have been concerns expressed among some of my fellow Republicans who want to support the Respect for Marriage Act that voting too close to the midterms is somehow perceived as too political,” Baldwin says. “From my own perspective, I know that getting the job done and passing the Respect for Marriage Act is an important goal. No one was playing politics with this bill. So while I would have liked to see this bill move forward sooner, I am very pleased that it is moving forward this week.”

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Write to Madeline Carlisle c [email protected] and Jasmine Aguilera in [email protected].

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