House passes landmark legislation protecting same-sex marriage

<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The House gave final passage on Thursday to landmark legislation protecting same-sex marriage, in a bipartisan vote that reflects a remarkable shift in public opinion just over a quarter-century after Congress defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The final vote was 258 to 169, with 39 Republican members joining every House Democrat in supporting the bill. One Republican, Burgess Owens of Utah, voted present.

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The vote was one of the final acts of this lame-duck Congress before the balance of power shifts and Republicans take control of the House in January. The bill, which provides a degree of relief for hundreds of thousands of same-sex married couples in the US, next goes to Joe Biden, who has said he will sign the legislation “promptly and proudly”.

“Today, Congress took a critical step to ensure that Americans have the right to marry the person they love,” Biden said. “The House’s bipartisan passage of the Respect for Marriage Act – by a significant margin – will give peace of mind to millions of LGBTQI+ and interracial couples who are now guaranteed the rights and protections to which they and their children are entitled.”

The historic legislation, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, requires federal and state governments to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages, prohibiting them from denying the validity of a marriage legally performed in another state on the basis of sex, race or ethnicity.

During an emotional bill enrollment ceremony on Thursday, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, wiped tears from her eyes as she thanked the many lawmakers and advocates who made the legislation a reality.

“At last we have history in the making,” Pelosi said. “Not only are we on the right side of history, we’re on the right side of the future: expanding freedom in America.”

Momentum for the bill began to build after the supreme court’s ruling overturning Roe v Wade in June raised fears that the conservative-leaning court might reverse same-sex marriage next. Writing in support of the majority’s decision, the conservative supreme court justice Clarence Thomas had suggested the court might also consider striking down “demonstrably erroneous” precedents set by rulings like Obergefell v Hodges, the 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and ended bans in the states that had them.

Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, said the newly passed bill would provide reassurance to all LGBTQ+ citizens living in fear of having their marriages invalidated.

“Today we are making history, but we’re also making a difference for millions of Americans,” said Baldwin, who played a key role in crafting the bill. “With the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, we can put to rest the worries of millions of loving couples who are concerned that some day an activist supreme court may take their rights and freedoms away.”

Despite support from some Republican lawmakers, most still opposed the legislation, calling it unnecessary. During the House debate over the bill, a number of Republicans criticized the proposal as an insult to religious liberty and a Democratic attempt to force liberal policies on more conservative states.

However, should Obergefell fall, the new law would not compel all 50 states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples nor does it stop states from moving to ban or limit same-sex marriages. In a concession to win Republican support, the measure also includes an exemption for religious organizations, guaranteeing that they would not be required to provide goods, services or accommodations for a celebration of a same-sex marriage, and that such a refusal would not jeopardize their tax-exempt status or other benefits.

Notably, the bill would also repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma), which defined a marriage as the union between a man and a woman and denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. Though the supreme court struck down part of the law, it remained on the books.

When Bill Clinton signed Doma into law in 1996, same-sex marriage was considered a divisive cultural issue. At the time, nearly seven in 10 Americans said marriages between same-sex couples should not be recognized by law as valid, according to Gallup. Now, decades later, almost exactly the same number of Americans – a record 71% – say same-sex unions should be legal.

The former Democratic congressman Barney Frank, the first House member to voluntarily come out as gay, celebrated Doma’s demise at the bill enrollment ceremony on Thursday, where his arrival was greeted with applause.

“I was here for the birth of Doma, so I am very grateful to be able to be here for the funeral,” Frank said.

LGBTQ advocates, meanwhile, praised the legislation as a “clear victory for this country’s 568,000 same-sex married couples”. But they argued that there is still more to do to protect marriage equality and LGBTQ+ Americans, who continue to face threats and violence, including a deadly shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs last month.

“Today’s vote in the House of Representatives sends a clear message: love is winning,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We eagerly await the president’s signature on this important legislation – and look forward to continuing to fight for full equality for everyone in our community, without exception.”

While there was little question the bill would pass the Democratic-controlled House, proponents say its passage was not inevitable.

Earlier this summer, House Democrats held what many expected would amount to a “show” vote demonstrating their commitment to protecting same-sex marriage while drawing a contrast with Republicans, whose midterm message targeted LGBTQ+ Americans.

But 47 House Republican lawmakers unexpectedly voted for the measure, a bipartisan tally that suddenly gave advocates hope that the upper chamber could muster enough bipartisan support to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold. After months of negotiating, the Senate voted 61-36 to approve a version of the measure, sponsored by Baldwin. It drew the support of 12 Republican senators.

“On the Senate side, I think we can say we defied political gravity,” Baldwin said on Thursday.

The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, heralded the legislation as a “very important step forward” in the nation’s “long but inexorable march towards greater equality”. Like many Americans, the issue of marriage equality is personal for Schumer. His daughter and her wife are expecting their first child next year.

“Today, thanks to the tireless advocacy of many, many in this room and the dogged work by many of my colleagues, my grandchild will live in a world that will respect and honor their mothers’ marriage,” Schumer said at the enrollment ceremony.

For Pelosi, who announced last month that she would step down from House leadership, the bill’s passage was not just a national achievement but also a personal milestone. When Pelosi joined the House in 1987, her first remarks on the floor were about fighting HIV/Aids. Now, after 35 years in office and two stints as speaker, one of the final bills she will send to the president will protect the rights of LGBTQ+ couples.

Just before voting for the bill, Pelosi said: “Today, we stand up for the values the vast majority of Americans hold dear – a belief in the dignity, beauty and divinity – divinity, a spark of divinity in every person – an abiding respect for love so powerful that it binds two people together.”