Biden Signs Respect For Marriage Act

[ Posted Tuesday, December 13th, 2022 – 16:03 UTC ]

President Joe Biden signed the Respect For Marriage Act at the White House today, which closes an ugly chapter in American federal law that began with the Defense Of Marriage Act (which was signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton). But while it may close that chapter, it should not be seen as the end of the story. Because Americans still don't have a federal right to marry the person they love no matter what. At least, not one written into law.

We all do currently enjoy marriage equality due to a Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, which created the right of same-sex couples to get married. But what one court giveth, another can easily taketh away, as we have already seen. So Obergefell is in place right now, but it could be overturned at any time. Which would throw the issue back to the states. Which the Respect For Marriage Act wouldn't change in the least.

Just as has been happening with abortion law, conservative states could pass laws stating that marriage could only happen between "a man and a woman." Red states could outlaw gay marriage, to put it another way. If the court went further and also struck down Loving v. Virginia, states could even outlaw interracial marriages too. Nothing in the R.F.M.A. fixes any of that.

What the new law does do is force all states -- even states that may in the future outlaw such marriages -- to give full faith and credit to any marriage which any other state deemed valid when performed. So if a couple from a deep-red state took a trip to a blue state and got married, their home state would have to honor it and treat them as married even if they didn't allow such marriages to take place within their borders. Which is roughly where we are on abortion law -- women can travel to states that defend the procedure, even if they can't get it where they live.

That is not the same thing as codifying a "federal right to marriage," which is how some are describing the R.F.M.A. Truly granting a federal right to marriage would have meant going further and forcing all states to marry gay and interracial couples -- just like Obergefell does. This would have written marriage rights into federal law, which would supersede anything passed by any state legislature. The R.F.M.A. does not do this.

There's a simple reason why it doesn't do this. The bill was subject to the filibuster in the Senate, so to get 10 or more Republicans on board it couldn't address the basic right to marry. It instead codified respect for paperwork. It banned states from rejecting marriages performed in other states, and that's all it did, because that's all the Republicans would vote for. Remember, even though the bill did attract a decent amount of bipartisan support in Congress, most Republicans in both chambers voted against it. They're still not ready to accept that over 70 percent of the public approves of gay marriage, even in the year 2022.

There would have been a way to actually pass a basic federal right, but due to two stubborn Democrats in the Senate, it was not possible. If Democrats had had 52 senators for the past two years instead of 50, then they could have changed the filibuster rule to allow for simple majority votes on all issues dealing with constitutional rights. Currently, the only bills which avoid the filibuster are budgetary. This would have carved out a new category.

If this had been possible, America would be in a much better place right now. We would have new laws guaranteeing voting rights for all. We could have reformed elections to remove much of the partisan gamesmanship (such as gerrymandering). We could have a national right to abortion. We could have a national right to marriage equality. But sadly, due to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, we don't have any of those things.

But today is a day to celebrate more than to rue what might have been, right? A 26-year embarrassment has been corrected. The Defense Of Marriage Act is no more. Same-sex and interracial couples now at least have the right to stay married, no matter where they move in this country. And for now, the Supreme Court hasn't acted to remove the basic marriage equality right it carved out in Obergefell. More than anything else, the R.F.M.A. was a warning to the high court not to toss Obergefell out, although whether that warning will change anything is anyone's guess, with the radicals on this particular court.

The R.F.M.A. is not merely symbolic, although the symbolism does indeed matter. It shows gay people everywhere that the federal government doesn't officially condemn their marriages any more. It shows a great deal of support for such marriages. It gives a limited right to marry, but that's much better than no federal law addressing that right at all -- or having a law still on the books denying that right. It is a big step forward on the "evolution" of this country on tolerance. That word was famously used by President Barack Obama, when his vice president essentially forced him to get off the fence and declare his own support for gay marriage (which, at the time, was a risky thing for even a Democrat to do -- or, at least, that's what they thought back then). But Obama did "evolve," as did an overwhelming majority of the American public.

It is entirely fitting that the man who forced Obama's hand -- Joe Biden -- was the one to sign such a bill. Biden showed real leadership back then, and he continues to show leadership now on the issue of basic human rights for all Americans. And that's something we all should celebrate.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Biden Signs Respect For Marriage Act”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


  2. [2] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    If anything, we've learned that legal precedent cannot be counted on to secure our rights... only codifying the right into law will do from now on. This SCOTUS has shown us who they truly are and we would be wise to never forget that.

  3. [3] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    Biden gave the pen he signed it with to Kamala Harris who gay married people back in 2004.

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