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Biden signs landmark bill to protect same-sex, interracial marriages

President Biden on Tuesday afternoon signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, granting federal protections to same-sex and interracial couples, and marking a milestone in the decades-long fight for marriage equality.

“Today is a good day,” a jubilant Biden declared on the South Lawn of the White House, where hundreds of lawmakers, gay rights activists and guests were gathered for the signing ceremony. “A day America takes a vital step toward equality, toward liberty, justice — not just for some, but for everyone. Toward creating a nation where decency, dignity and love are recognized, honored and protected.”

Biden recalled how, when he was vice president, he had declared in a 2012 interview his unequivocal support of same-sex marriage ahead of President Barack Obama, who had said his views were “evolving.”

“The good news is that, as more and more Americans come to understand, what this is all about is a simple proposition: Who do you love?” Biden said then. “And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out. It’s what all marriages at their root are about, whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.”

At the time, Biden’s remarks were considered groundbreaking — enough to get him “in trouble,” Biden joked Tuesday. But at the bill signing ceremony, audio of Biden’s 2012 remarks were played against an instrumental rendition of “America the Beautiful,” showing how far the White House had come on the issue of same-sex marriage.

“This law — and the love it defends — strike a blow against hate in all its forms. And that’s why this law matters to every single American, no matter who you are or who you love,” Biden said Tuesday. “This shouldn’t be about conservative or liberal, red or blue. No, this is about realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence, a promise rooted in sacred and secular beliefs, a promise that we’re all created equal.”

The landmark legislation passed the Senate last month and the House last week with strong bipartisan support: 12 Republican senators and 39 GOP House members joined all Democrats and independents in both chambers to pass the bill.

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Same-sex marriage bill
What is the Respect for Marriage Act?
The Respect for Marriage Act grants federal protections to same-sex and interracial couples. It does not force states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but requires that people be considered married in any state as long as the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed.
House and Senate votes
The same-sex marriage bill passed the Senate and House with strong bipartisan support. Here’s a list of which senators and House members voted for and against the measure and a look behind the effort to get it passed in the Senate.

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The Respect for Marriage Act will not force states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but will require that people be considered married in any state as long as the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed.

The bill also will repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. In addition to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, that act allowed states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. That law has remained on the books despite being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor and its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the fundamental rights.

The signing underscores a nearly three-decade evolution, from 1996 when President Bill Clinton (D) signed legislation that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, to the 2004 election when President George W. Bush (R) used the issue to energize GOP voters, to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Biden said in a statement last week that Congress had restored “a measure of security to millions of marriages and families” after the Supreme Court in June ended the right to abortion after nearly 50 years, and Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should also reexamine cases that set precedent on LGBT rights.

Before the signing, pop stars Sam Smith performed “Stay With Me” and Cyndi Lauper performed “True Colors.” Other notable guests included the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. and Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith, who made up one of the seven plaintiff couples in the case that led to marriage equality in Massachusetts.

Lauper, who has focused much of her fight for LGBTQ rights on ending youth homelessness, made a surprise appearance at the White House briefing Tuesday ahead of the signing ceremony.

“We can rest easy tonight because our families are validated and because now we’re allowed to love who we love — which sounds odd to say, but Americans can now love who we love,” Lauper told reporters. “And bless Joe Biden and all the people that worked on this for allowing people not to worry and their children not to worry about their future.”

According to Gallup polling in May, 71 percent of respondents said same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid, up from 27 percent in 1996, when Gallup began polling on the issue. Until recently, there had been a large divide along party lines on the issue; 2021 was the first year a majority of Republicans supported same-sex marriage. In Gallup’s 2022 survey, 55 percent of Republicans supported it.

On Tuesday, several lawmakers and Biden administration officials spoke about how the legislation was personally and politically significant for them.

“This is an extremely historic day, a proud day for me and so many of us here at the White House and so many Americans just across the country,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the first Black and first openly gay White House press secretary, told reporters Tuesday.

Vice President Harris recalled how, on Valentine’s Day 2004, she performed some of the country’s first marriages of same-sex couples.

“I saw tears of joy that day as people celebrated basic human rights, the right to be recognized as a family, the right to be with the person you love, whether at a military graduation, a hospital bedside or a naturalization ceremony,” Harris said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke Tuesday about how fitting it was that the Respect for Marriage Act would be the last piece of legislation she signed in a bill enrollment ceremony as House speaker. Her first speech on the House floor in 1987, she recalled, was to call on her colleagues to take leadership in the AIDS crisis.

“Know your power, take satisfaction,” Pelosi told the hundreds of activists outside the White House Tuesday afternoon. “None of this would have happened without your mobilization, your advocacy, which not only expanded freedom for the LGBTQ community, but for all Americans.”

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that he was wearing the same tie he wore when his daughter got married to her wife. The two are expecting their first child in the spring, he added.

“I want them to raise their child with all the love and security that every child deserves,” Schumer said. “Thanks to the dogged work by many of my colleagues, my grandchild will live in a world that will respect and honor their mothers’ marriage.”

Democrats have warned since June that federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages, as well as other rights, could be at risk after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years had guaranteed the right to an abortion in the United States.

In his June concurrence with the decision to overturn Roe, Thomas wrote that the high court should also examine previous rulings that legalized the right to buy and use contraception without government restriction (Griswold v. Connecticut), same-sex relationships (Lawrence v. Texas) and marriage equality (Obergefell v. Hodges).

“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote. “Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”

Thomas’s opinion set off alarm bells among proponents of marriage equality, who pointed out that if the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefell, as it did Roe, then the right to same-sex marriage would similarly fall to the states. Currently, 35 states have statutes or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage that would take effect if Obergefell were overturned, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ equality.

“When that case [Dobbs] came down, it sent shudders through the LGBTQ community for sure because it really put at risk the certainty that their marriages that are recognized today would be recognized in the future, should the Supreme Court revisit Obergefell,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, said in a Washington Post Live interview Monday.

Still, a bipartisan group of senators negotiated to delay a vote on the bill until after the midterm elections and to work on the religious liberty amendment to ensure its passage. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was part of that bipartisan group, last week praised her colleagues for their relentless work to get the bill passed, recalling how on Thanksgiving Day she was basting a turkey and texting lawmakers about the bill at the same time.

In a Washington Post Live interview, Collins said family members, constituents and friends who were in same-sex relationships began reaching out to her after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, expressing “a real sense of concern that there was now a cloud over their marriages.” She said she was heartened that the House had passed an earlier version of the Respect for Marriage Act over the summer with a strong bipartisan vote, but knew it could still be an uphill battle to get the bill passed in the Senate.

“In talking with my Republican colleagues, and with Tammy, I felt that if we could come up with some language that would make it clear that we were not in any way weakening religious liberties … that we could in fact get the bill over the finish line,” Collins said.

Republicans who opposed the bill decried it last week as an affront to “biblical” definitions of marriage. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) warned without evidence that it could lead to the legality of “polygamy, bestiality, child marriage, or whatever!” in the future. GOP lawmakers also played down the threat to marriage equality and said the bill was unnecessary, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion rights.

Scott Clement and Cara McGoogan contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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