The House on Thursday gave final approval to legislation to enshrine into federal law same-sex marriage rights, which included some religious liberty protections that helped win support from conservatives.
The landmark bill, dubbed the Respect for Marriage Act, passed 258-169, with 39 House Republicans joining all the chamber’s Democrats in support of the bill. It now heads to President Biden’s desk for his signature.
“Just as I began my career fighting for LGBTQ communities, I am overjoyed that one of the final bills I will sign as speaker will be the Respect for Marriage Act: ensuring the federal government will never again stand in the way of marrying the person you love,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
The bill narrowly cleared the Democrat-run Senate last week in a 61-36 vote, one more than the 60 votes required to survive in the upper chamber.
The bill’s religious liberty carveout will shield nonprofit religious groups such as churches from lawsuits if they refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages. Private businesses will still be exposed to litigation if they won’t cater to same-sex marriage ceremonies or parties.
Most Republicans still feared that the religious freedom provision was not robust enough to guard against lawsuits.
The bill’s passage by Congress underscores the major shift in public opinion toward same-sex marriage in recent decades and marks the first time that such rights will be protected by federal law. It also caps off months of negotiations on Capitol Hill over religious liberty protections to secure crucial backing from enough Senate Republicans.
Current same-sex marriage rights are afforded by the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which in 2015 made marrying a person of one’s own sex a constitutional right. However, Democrats pushed for legislation to codify such protections, fearing that the conservative-leaning high court may overturn the ruling as it did to Roe v. Wade’s nationwide abortion rights.
After overturning Roe, which forced state legislatures to set abortion laws, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the high court “should reconsider” its past same-sex marriage ruling.
“It is that unfounded fear that brings us here today. Democrats have conjured up this nonexistent threat based on one line in Justice Thomas’ concurrence,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said during the floor debate. “[This bill] is dangerous and takes the country in the wrong direction.”
Another high-profile same-sex marriage case that pits equality against free speech rights is currently making its way through the high court. The case involves a Colorado website designer who says she should not be compelled to work for homosexual couples, which she says is contrary to her religious beliefs.
Efforts by Republican senators to beef up the religious liberty components of the bill were rebuffed by Democrats. The measure would have prevented government agencies from targeting individuals or businesses that oppose same-sex marriage, such as the IRS revoking tax-exempt status, the Education Department instituting honor codes, or private individuals being denied business licenses.
Republicans also sought to prevent the types of litigation used against the website designer.
House Democrats heralded the historic nature of the bill, though they said it would have afforded greater protections for same-sex couples without any religious liberty exemption.
“We’re just excited about passing it and codifying the right for people to marry who they love,” Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat, told The Washington Times. “I’m in an interracial marriage, and I’m a mom of a trans kid. I see how important this is.”
The bill also included protections for interracial marriages and affirmed that polygamous marriages are not recognized.