The U.S. Senate’s top-ranking Democrat has filed for cloture on a bill that would require the federal government to recognize legal marriages, including those involving same-sex couples, as valid, which would serve as a failsafe if the U.S. Supreme Court were to reverse its previous rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.
On Monday, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer filed cloture on the Respect for Marriage Act, signaling his intention to call a vote on the bill, which would seek to ensure that same-sex marriages — and other marriages that were once banned, including interracial marriage — are recognized as legitimate by states and the federal government.
Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges allows same-sex couples anywhere in the United States to wed, on the grounds that prohibitions on same-sex marriage are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
But recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court rolling back abortion rights have made some politicians — primarily Democrats — nervous that the high court will overturn its own precedent and reverse the Obergefell decision, thereby allowing bans in 35 states to come back into effect.
Citing a concurring opinion from a case dealing with abortion that recommended revisiting the court’s previous ruling on marriage equality, Democrats have said it is important to pass legislation ensuring that same-sex marriages will continue to be legalized even should the conservative majority on the court reverse precedent. The resulting legislation, the Respect for Marriage Act, seeks to avoid the patchwork approach to same-sex unions that existed prior to Obergefell and ensure that same-sex married couples are entitled to all the same benefits bestowed on opposite-sex married couples.
As written, the bill does not require states with statutes or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage to issue licenses to otherwise qualified same-sex couples, but does require them to recognize valid licenses from the 15 states where same-sex marriage is not banned outright. In that sense, the bill does not quite enshrine Obergefell into law, but does cement the high court’s 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the anti-LGBTQ Defense of Marriage Act and required the United States to recognize valid same-sex marriages in states where the practice was legal.
Should Obergefell ever be reversed by the high court, people in states prohibiting same-sex unions would have to travel elsewhere to get married, and it would be left to state-level grassroots activists in those 35 states to lobby their own lawmakers, in the hope of beginning the slow, deliberative process of changing state statutes or amending state constitutions, and seeking to unseat politicians who oppose such unions.
Schumer filed for cloture following an announcement by a bipartisan group of five U.S. senators that they had crafted an amendment adding various religious liberty protections to the bill. Under those provisions, opposition to same-sex marriage is recognized as valid and cannot be punished by the government, and religious entities cannot be forced to provide goods, services, or facilities for same-sex marriages. The amendment also confirms that the law cannot be interpreted in a way that would allow polygamous marriages.
Political observers say that Schumer’s decision to file cloture on the Respect for Marriage Act signals that he believes the bill, now replete with religious liberty protections, has the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans who can vote for cloture, or to end debate on the bill and allow an up-or-down vote on the measure.
The group of five senators who crafted the amendment to the bill — who had been lobbying their fellow senators behind the scenes — introduced it in the hope of assuaging the concerns of Republicans who may have been reticent to back a bill that would anger social conservatives. The group had previously asked Schumer to delay a vote on the measure until after the midterm elections, held last Tuesday, in order to allow them more time to convince wavering senators and taking pressure off those up for re-election this cycle.
“Because my top priority is to get things done in a bipartisan way whenever we can, we determined that this legislation was too important to risk failure, so we waited to give bipartisanship a chance,” Schumer said in a statement announcing that he had filed for cloture on the legislation. “I hope for the sake of tens of millions of Americans that at least 10 Republicans will vote with us to protect marriage equality into law soon. The rights and dignity of millions of Americans depend on it.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the former governor of Massachusetts, told The Hill that if the religious protections amendment is incorporated into the final bill, he will support it. Romney’s sign-off brings the total of Republican senators openly supporting the amendment to five, in addition to U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), and Thom Tillis (N.C.), the latter three of whom were instrumental in crafting the amendment.
“I’d like to get onto the bill,” Romney said. “If that amendment is attached to the bill, I’ll vote for it.”
If the Senate passes the legislation, the amended bill would have to go back to the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote on the new religious liberty protections before the law can be signed into effect by President Joe Biden. The House previously approved the original version of the legislation, with 47 Republicans voting in support of it. It remains to be seen whether additional House Republicans would be swayed by the inclusion of the religious liberty protections.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!