The Senate passed bipartisan legislation Tuesday to protect same-sex marriages, an extraordinary sign of shifting national politics on the issue and a measure of relief for the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples who have married since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
The bill, which would ensure that same-sex and interracial marriages are enshrined in federal law, was approved 61-36 on Tuesday, including support from 12 Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the legislation was “a long time coming” and part of America’s “difficult but inexorable march towards greater equality.”
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Democrats are moving quickly, while the party still holds the majority in both chambers of Congress. The legislation now moves to the House for a final vote, likely next week.
President Joe Biden praised the bipartisan vote and said he will sign the bill “promptly and proudly” if it is passed by the House. He said it will ensure that LGBTQ youth “will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”
The bill has gained steady momentum since the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned unconstitutional abortions, a ruling that included a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas that suggested same-sex marriage could also come under threat. Bipartisan Senate negotiations got a kick-start this summer when 47 Republicans unexpectedly voted for a House bill and gave supporters new optimism.
The legislation would not force any state to allow same-sex couples to marry. But it would require states to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed, and protect current same-sex unions, if the court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision were to be overturned. It’s a stunning bipartisan endorsement, and evidence of societal change after years of bitter divisiveness on the issue.
A new law protecting same-sex marriages would also be a major victory for Democrats as they relinquish their two years of consolidated power in Washington, and a massive win for advocates who have been pushing for decades for federal legislation.
“Our community really needs a win, we have been through a lot,” said Kelley Robinson, the incoming president of Human Rights Campaign, which advocates on LGBTQ issues. “As a queer person who is married, I feel a sense of relief right now. I know my family is safe.”
Robinson was in the Senate chamber for the vote with her wife, Becky, and toddler son. “It was more emotional than I expected,” she said.
The vote was personal for many senators, too. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who is the first openly gay senator and was the lead sponsor of the bill, tearfully hugged Schumer and others as the final vote was called. Baldwin, who has been working on gay rights issues for almost four decades, tweeted thanks to the same-sex and interracial couples who she said made the moment possible.
“By living as your true selves, you changed the hearts and minds of people around you,” she wrote.
Schumer said on Tuesday that he was wearing the tie he wore at his daughter’s wedding, “one of the happiest moments of my life.” He also recalled the “harrowing conversation” he had with his daughter and her wife in September 2020 when they heard that liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away. “Could our right to marry be undone?” they asked at the time.
With conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett replacing Ginsburg, the court has now overturned Roe v. Wade , stoking fears about Obergefell and other rights protected by the court. But sentiment has shifted on same-sex marriage, with more than two-thirds of the public now in support.
But critics warn the bill could infringe on religious liberty. The Mormon church, nearly 17-million member faith, said in a statement this month that church doctrine would continue to consider same-sex relationships to be against God’s commandments.
Most Republicans still oppose the legislation, saying it is superfluous and citing various concerns about religious liberty. And some conservative groups stepped up opposition in recent weeks, lobbying Republican supporters to switch their votes.
“Marriage is the exclusive, lifelong, conjugal union between one man and one woman, and any departure from that design hurts the indispensable goal of having every child raised in a stable home by the mom and dad who conceived him,” the Heritage Foundation’s Roger Severino, vice president of domestic policy, wrote in a recent blog post arguing against the bill.
In an effort to win the 10 Republican votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats delayed consideration until after the midterm elections, hoping that would relieve political pressure on GOP senators who might be wavering.
Eventual support from 12 Republicans gave Democrats the votes they needed.
Along with Tillis, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman supported the bill early on and have lobbied their GOP colleagues to support it. Also voting for the legislation were Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Todd Young of Indiana, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mitt Romney of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
Just before passage, Collins thanked her fellow Republicans who supported it. “I know it has not been easy, but they have done the right thing,” Collins said.
Lummis, one of the more conservative members of the Senate, spoke ahead of the final vote about her “fairly brutal self soul searching” before supporting the bill. She said that she accepts her church’s beliefs that a marriage is between a man and a woman, but noted that the country was founded on the separation of church and state.
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“We do well by taking this step, not embracing or validating each other’s devoutly held views, but by the simple act of tolerating them,” Lummis said.
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