The U.S. Senate took a step closer to passing a bill to grant federal recognition to same-sex marriages on Monday, voting to end debate on Republican-backed amendments seeking to add greater legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage to the bill.
The Senate voted 61-35 to end debate the Respect for Marriage Act, which had previously been amended by a group of five senators seeking to cajole more Republicans into voting for the bill by adding additional religious liberty protections to the measure.
If ultimately signed into law by President Joe Biden, the law would require the federal government to recognize all legally performed same-sex and interracial marriages as valid, thereby entitling partners involved in such unions to a host of marital-related benefits.
The very purpose of the Respect for Marriage Act is intended to serve as a failsafe in case the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the court’s own precedent in the 2015 landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and is currently legally binding — although some social conservatives have argued the ruling oversteps the court’s authority and should be reversed.
The amended Respect for Marriage Act, as crafted by Senate negotiators, clarifies that federal protections of religious liberty and conscience protections for objectors to same-sex marriage will remain in place, exempts nonprofit religious organizations from having to provide services, facilities, or goods for a same-sex marriage, or having to solemnize a same-sex marriage, and protects objectors from being penalized for their opposition to same-sex nuptials. It also maintains a ban on polygamous marriages.
But some Republicans don’t think that those protections are sufficient, and have put up a fight on the Senate floor demanding that amendments that carve out additional protections for religious entities be added to the bill as well.
As The Hill reports, the vote to end debate on the bill was held open for nearly two-and-a-half hours as senators debated whether additional amendments could be offered to the bill, and as supporters of the Respect for Marriage Act waited for the votes of three Republicans needed to overcome the 60-vote threshold on ending debate on the amendment.
The bill narrowly surpassed the 60-vote hurdle needed to begin debate on the measure earlier this month, with 12 Republicans voting along with all 50 members of the Democratic Senate caucus to advance the bill. Complicating matters is that Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) is currently in his home state campaigning ahead of a Dec. 6 runoff election, giving supporters of the Respect for Marriage Act very little wiggle room if they wish to see the measure successfully pass the upper chamber.
Senators ultimately reached an agreement allowing votes on three amendments proposed by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), James Lankford (R-Okla.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), all of which seek to add additional protection for religious entities. The votes on those amendments will be held on Tuesday afternoon starting at 3:45 p.m., with final passage of the bill coming soon after.
Lee’s amendment, which would prohibit the federal government from retaliating against people or groups for adhering to sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions that oppose condoning same-sex marriages, needs 60 votes to be added to the bill. But Lankford’s amendment, which seeks to clarify that religious entities that partner with the government are exempt from having to recognize same-sex marriages, and Rubio’s amendment, which seeks to protect religiously-affiliated entities like orphanages, women’s shelters, or schools from being sued for refusing to acknowledge same-sex marriages as valid, will only require 51 votes to be added to the bill.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of the Republicans who voted to advance the bill earlier this month, told reporters that while he supports Lee’s amendment, it is “far more expansive” than the narrow bill that the group of five had agreed to in hopes of obtaining 60 votes.
“I think one of the things that make it very difficult for getting people to come to an agreement is just giving everyone the Heisman instead of listening to them and trying to give them an opportunity to get a vote. I’ve got no problem with it,” Tillis said of Lee’s amendment. “I wish we’d do more amendment votes around here. It was an earnest effort on our part to let them have their amendments be heard and let the vote go where the vote goes tomorrow.”
Some Republicans who previously supported the bill have received pushback from social conservatives. For example, a coalition of more than 40 Wyoming pastors wrote an open letter to Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) chastising her for voting to advance debate on the bill and urging her to “reverse course” by blocking the bill. Those pastors claim that the bill will “make outlaws of pious and God-fearing citizens” who oppose same-sex marriage from a religious standpoint.
If approved by the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, the measure, with whichever religious protections happen to get added to it, would have to go back to the House of Representatives for final approval before heading to President Biden’s desk for his signature into law. The House previously voted on a version containing fewer religious protections back in July, with 47 Republicans voting in favor of the bill.
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