Leslie McMurray | Transgender Education and Advocacy Associate
The Respect for Marriage Act was signed into law by President Biden on the afternoon of December 13th. Thousands of supporters of this legislation and invited guests attended the signing. The bill passed the House in a bi-partisan vote of 258-169-1 with all Democrats voting in favor along with 39 Republicans. As Jimmy Kimmel noted, “even the partisanship was bi.”
The Respect for Marriage Act is the first time Congress has provided federal protections for marriage equality. This act also enshrines protections for interracial marriages. That’s the good part.
Marriage equality has been protected since the Obergefell ruling in 2015, when the United States Supreme Court said that the right to marry who you love is guaranteed by the United Sates Constitution, even if that person is the same sex as you are. However, since the Dobbs ruling which overturned Roe v. Wade (federal protections for abortion rights) there is concern that the Obergefell ruling could potentially be overturned by the conservative leaning court. The Respect for Marriage Act would protect much of the progress we saw under Obergefell.
It is far from perfect. As usual, to get the needed votes from Republicans, the original legislation was watered down some, lessening the “respect” part to allow states like Texas to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples
The Respect for Marriage Act also overturns “DOMA” (the Defense of Marriage Act) and its definition of marriage as being between “one man and one woman”- the exact language still on the books in Texas. I wouldn’t expect to see marriage equality continue here in Texas in the event Obergefell is overturned. If that happens, we would return to a time when each state could decide whether or not they would issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. If the state you live in refused, you might have to travel to a different state that would issue such a license.
The reason this bill’s passage was so urgent is a signaling of intent to possibly overturn the Obergefell ruling by Justice Clarence Thomas. Combine that with the Republican party taking over the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in January and the time was now, or maybe never.
So, once again, we need to be happy that we have something at all, even if it isn’t what we deserve, and it certainly is NOT full equality.
A wise man once said, “change is incremental.” Look, we all (rightfully) believe that the right to marry who you love should be absolute. But there are some in power who disagree. We don’t have particularly agreeable federal courts right now, so we need to protect the rights we have in the best way possible.
Right now, the Respect for Marriage Act is that safety net. If you think about it, there hasn’t been much compromise in Congress lately, so this might be considered a bit of a Christmas miracle.
When my now wife, Katie, and I started dating and were living together, we could not get married in Texas. The Obergefell ruling made it possible for us to marry and I’ve never been happier. As much as I’d like to see a few additional things in this new law, I am 100% for ANYTHING that protects our rights as a married couple, and for now, this does the job.
No one is implying the fight is over. We’ve gained some critical ground and it’s important to celebrate every win. The fight for equality continues, but for now, let’s take a moment to celebrate with those we love so much.