The Fight For The Respect For Marriage Act


Miles Meschter (he/him), Staff Writer

On December 13th, 2022, President Biden signed the Respect For Marriage Act into law after congressional Democrats and a faction of Republicans voted in favor. The bill is one of the few civil rights legislation explicitly protecting Americans who identify as LGBTQ+. It overturns the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), le- gislation that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. And now requires that such marriages, as well as interracial marriages, be respec- ted and acknowledged nationwide.

The Respect for Marriage Act was first proposed to the House in 2009 by Rep. Je- rrold Nadler (D-NY), who in his announcement called DOMA an “ugly law” to be sent to the history books. His proposal was met with 91 Democratic co-sponsors, along with former president Bill Clinton who signed the 1996 bill into law.

When the DOMA was introduced to congress by Southern Republicans, Clinton had criticized the bill as unnecessary. Yet Clinton was politically motivated to appeal to moderate voters, especially with the 1996 Presidential Election approa- ching, hefaced Republican and Democrat support in congress that could override his veto. Ultimately deciding to side with the bill, Clinton signed it privately, with the decision angering some of his administration.

Later, Clinton became publicly supportive of same-sex marriage in 2009, preceding both Obama and Biden. By 2011, the bill received its first Republican co-sponsor, and was supported by President Obama. Unfortunately, the legislation’s popula- rity was fleeting before it was blocked in committee, and was unsuccessfully in- troduced to the 112th, 113th, and 114th sessions in congress. Despite the political barriers, sections of DOMA were found unconstitutional by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2011, and was repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The landmark court cases of United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage where it was allowed.

New momentum was brought to The Respect For Marriage Act when in 2022, con- servative Justice Clarence Thomas stated that same-sex marriage be reconsidered by the courts, inciting concern. Rep. Nadler introduced the Act with co-sponsors of both parties in the House and Senate. This session included a revision to the bill that also codified protections for interracial marriage. For the first time, the bill passed the U.S. House with 267 votes in favor, 220 Democrats and 47 Republicans. It passed the Senate in November with 61 “ays”, of those, 12 were Republicans and 49 were Democrats. Before reaching the President, the bill had to be sent back to the House after Senators had amended the text to include religious liberty protections.

The Respect For Marriage Act finally left Congress on December 8th, 2022, and was signed into law by President Biden 5 days later. Biden was among the 84 senators who had previously voted in favor of the bill’s opponent, DOMA, in 1996.

The impact of the act is nuanced. It secures the 2015 court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage be recognized by all states and valid throughout. If the increasingly conservative Supreme Court decides to repeal the 2015 decision, the Respect for Marriage Act still secures federal recognition for all couples. With legal precedent and protections in flux, the Respect For Marriage Act cements the government’s commitment to due process and equal protection for marriage. It is a layer of security to ensure that licenses can still be provided to gay, lesbian, and interracial couples.

In a political climate where legislation falls along tight party lines, the act was a break from gridlock and received an unexpected level of favorability. This protec- tion by the U.S. government is one step closer to truly reflecting public opinion, where 70% of Americans support legalization of same-sex marriage.