President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law on Tuesday, just a few days after the House passed the bill Respect for Marriage Act in 258-169 vote on Thursday. The historic bill repeals the Defense of Marriage Act and ensures that all states across the country will recognize same-sex marriages should the Supreme Court overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that guaranteed the right to marriage for same-sex couples nationally in 2015.
“For most of our nation’s history, we denied interracial couples and same-sex couples from these protections,” Biden said on Tuesday in remarks before signing the bill. “We failed to treat them with equal dignity, and respect. And now, the law requires interracial marriage and same-sex marriage must be recognized as legal in every state in the nation.”
Biden signed the bill during a ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House, which included performances by Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper, and remarks by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The bill passed the House with the support of 39 Republicans, after 12 Republicans voted for it in the Senate. It was one of a few bills congressional Democrats aimed to quickly pass before the new Congress—which includes a new Republican House majority—takes over in January.
“The congressional Republicans and conservative leaders who joined with the President and their Democratic colleagues to protect the right to marry who you love deserve real credit,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement. “At the same time, we need to recognize that in 2022, there was still significant opposition to this from those who want government inserted into American families’ most deeply personal decisions, including ultra MAGA officeholders.”
Pelosi celebrated the passage of the bill on Dec. 8 as one of the last she will vote for in her role as the Democrats’ leader before she steps down. “Today we stand up for the values the vast majority of Americans hold dear, a belief in the dignity, beauty, and divinity,” she said on the House floor prior to the vote. “Today this chamber proudly stands with forces of freedom, not going back, and justice.”
Democrats said they felt an urgency to codify same-sex marriage rights after the Supreme Court overturned landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade in June. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that the high court should reconsider its decisions in Obergefell and Griswold v. Connecticut, a case that guaranteed married couples could access birth control, because they all were rooted in the same interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 case that guaranteed protection of interracial marriages, was similarly decided, and the Respect for Marriage Act also includes protections for interracial couples.
The bill’s passage comes as state legislatures in Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and elsewhere have passed or promoted bills that have been criticized as anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ. In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill into state law, which prevents teachers from discussing their sexual orientation in the classroom or teaching subjects related to sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grade levels. In 2021, Texas introduced over 30 anti-LGBTQ bills, and passed a bill in January banning trans youth from playing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity. It also comes about three weeks after a mass shooter at an LGBTQ night club in Colorado Springs killed five people and wounded 17 others.
Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national nonprofit that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQ community, said she was in the Capitol when the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act last month. “I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit overcome with emotion. Like, I felt joy, I felt relief,” she told TIME in an interview prior to the House vote. “There haven’t been so many times in my adult life where I’ve actually seen my experience as a black queer woman validated in the halls of government.”
What does the Respect for Marriage Act do?
The bill repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill passed in 1996 that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
There are 35 states in the U.S. that ban same-sex marriage, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures and Stateline. Should the Supreme Court overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that ruled the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples under the U.S. Constitution, those state bans could again go into effect. The Respect for Marriage Act requires that all states, even if they cease issuing same-sex marriage licenses, have to recognize marriages performed in other states.
“It protects the status quo,” Robinson says. “It ensures that if you are married, legally married, or if you get married in the future in a state that allows the celebration, that your rights are protected no matter where you move, where you live, or if you’re traveling across state lines.”
The bill also requires states to similarly recognize interracial marriages, protecting the rights guaranteed in Loving v. Virginia. That element comes as a relief to Dawn Porter, a Black woman, and her husband, a white man, who have been married 15 years and reside in Alabama. Porter says the concurring opinion from Justice Thomas—who is himself in an interracial marriage—alarmed her.
“My immediate thought was, they’re coming for us,” Porter says. “They’re coming for my family…So for us, this bill is everything.”
“There’s a sigh of relief,” she adds. “There’s no more knots in our stomach. And we’re just proud of [this] Administration and Congress for getting this through.”
A group of bipartisan Senators, led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, struggled to find Republican support for the bill prior to the midterm elections in early November. The vote was pushed back to after the election, and the Senators included an amendment to the bill that includes explicit religious freedom protections in order to get Republicans on board.
Over the course of 15 years between 2004 and 2019, support for marriage equality has increased rapidly in American society, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2004, 31% of the public supported same-sex marriage. By 2019, 61% were in favor.
Bryan Wilson, the co-founder of the Pride Center West Texas in Odessa, Texas, credits gay-rights activists and increasing visibility for members of the LGBTQ community for the dramatic increase in public support.
“People have started to realize, oh, this is needed because gay people are not just the ones I see on TV, who live in New York and L.A. where life is great and everybody loves them.” Wilson says. “They’re starting to understand that actually, the common queer experience is more like that of the people that we serve people who live in smaller cities, smaller communities, who are not able to access those fabulous parties and walk on the street holding hands and be celebrated by their school board members and their local politicians.”
The Respect for Marriage Act, he adds, helps quiet “that incredibly loud alarm that’s always going off in our souls and in our hearts and our minds that we are in danger… it is just gonna make it a little bit softer.”
Still, if Obergefell is overturned, LGBTQ people in Texas and other conservative states could have to travel across state lines to be married.
Adri Pérez, who is trans and works as an activist for LGBTQ rights in Austin, Texas, says the bill comes at a critical time for members of the LGBTQ community who are the target of violent actors.
“This shift in support from the general public is one of the most monumental political shifts that people talk about,” Pérez tells TIME. “But that visibility without protection is functionally turning into a death sentence.”
“I know that enshrining these protections into law on a federal level, especially when we live in a state like Texas that still has laws on the books that criminalize homosexual behavior and that dictate that a marriage is between a man and woman—this is very important,” Pérez adds. “I don’t think [the bill] goes far enough, but I think that the distance that we’ve come would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.”
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