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‘A blow against hate and all its forms’: Biden signs Respect for Marriage Act, repealing 1996 anti-LGBT+ law

Mr Biden’s signature on the Respect for Marriage Act repeals a 1996 law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage that he voted for as a senator, 16 years before he endorsed letting same-sex couples marry during his term as vice-president

Andrew Feinberg
Tuesday 13 December 2022 22:36 GMT
Biden signs bill protecting same-sex, interracial marriages

More than a quarter-century after Congress enacted a federal ban on recognising marriages between two people of the same sex, President Joe Biden has signed into law bipartisan legislation guaranteeing same-sex married couples and interracial married couples the right to be treated as legally married spouses in all 50 states.

Speaking on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday, surrounded by many of the lawmakers and activists who’d pushed for Congress to act to codify same-sex and interracial marriage rights, Mr Biden hailed the Respect for Marriage Act as the next step in America’s ongoing extension of fundamental rights to more and more groups compared with the narrow set of those recognised as deserving of full citizenship at the time of the country’s founding.

“Today is a good day — today America takes a vital step toward equality ... liberty and justice. Not just for some — but for everyone,” he said.

Mr Biden said the decision of whether to marry and to whom one will be married is “one of the most profound decisions a person can make,” but lamented that the US had “denied interracial couples and same sex couples” important legal protections “for most of our nation's history”.

“We failed to treat them with equal dignity and respect,” he said, adding that the law he was about to sign would require interracial and same-sex marriages to be “recognised as legal in every state in the nation”.

He also thanked the senators who’d pushed for the legislation to pass the upper chamber, including Democratic sponsors Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, as well as Republican sponsor Susan Collins of Maine, and singled out Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema (who switched her registration to Independent this week), Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Dianne Feinstein of California as well as Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio Thom Tillis of North Carolina, thanking each for their support for the new law.

President Joe Biden speaks during a bill signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (AP)

“This law and the love it defends strikes a blow against hate and all its forms, and that's why this law matters to every single American, no matter who you are or who you love,” he said. “This shouldn't be about conservative or liberal, red or blue. No, this is about realising the promise of the Declaration of Independence: A promise rooted in a sacred and secular beliefs, a promise that we're all created equal”.

The moment the president put pen to paper to write the bipartisan legislation into America’s law books capped a raucous celebration featuring a performance from singer Cyndi Lauper, who earlier on Tuesday took to the White House briefing room to thank Mr Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and countless activists for their work.

The president also thanked the assembled activists and LGBT+ advocates who were in the crowd.

“So many of you put your relationships ... your jobs ... your lives on the line, to fight for the law I’m about to sign,” he said. For me and the entire nation, thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said.

It was Mr Schumer, a longtime advocate for same-sex marriage, who opened the day’s programme after emerging from the White House with Ms Pelosi.

Wearing a broad smile and the purple tie he’d worn to his daughter’s wedding “to a beautiful young lady,” which recalled was “one of the happiest days of [his] life”.

He told the more than 2,000 attendees that Tuesday was “an historic day, a day of jubilation, and a day of relief”.

“After a lot of hard work today, the long but inexorable marc, towards greater equality takes an important step forward,” he said.

Ms Pelosi said the day’s events mark “a glorious moment of triumph for love of freedom and dignity for all” and recalled how she’d been “overwhelmed with emotion” when she’d presided over the House during the final vote on the bill.

“Many of us who have long fought for LGBTQ rights are jumping for joy. Because for millions of Americans, the impacts of this law are necessary and absolutely fundamental. is enshrined equality ensuring same sex and interracial couples can access all legal protections and financial benefits that marriage affords,” she said. “It fortifies families from being abandoned and uprooted with a peace of mind that their marriage is federally protected. And it defends dignity, because everyone deserves to bask in the magical blessing of building a union with the person you love”.

The veteran San Francisco representative said it is “fitting” that one of her final acts as speaker of the House was to oversee passage of the Respect for Marriage Act because one of her final acts as speaker at the end of her first stint in that high office was to put her signature to legislation which, when signed by then-president Barack Obama, ended the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

But she warned the audience of activists and supporters that the work of achieving LGBT+ equality is not yet finished because the Equality Act – a Democratic proposed bill that would extend civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans – has not yet been passed.

“This fight is an essential thread in the fabric of our nation's history. Because at its core, America has always been about expanding freedom, not restricting it,” she said.

The new law, which was shepherded through the evenly divided Senate by Ms Baldwin, the first openly LGBT+ person elected to the upper chamber — repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which was first written into America’s law books during the Clinton administration, but has not been enforced since a pair of Supreme Court rulings in 2013 and 2015 found it to be unconstitutional.

Although the federal government has recognised same-sex marriages since the 2013 United States v Windsor decision and states have been required to recognise them since the court handed down the 2015 Obergefell v Hodges ruling, LGBT+ rights advocates have feared that the new conservative supermajority on the high court could return US law to the pre-2013 status quo ante if given the opportunity to do so, citing a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas in the case the court used to overturn a half-century of abortion rights earlier this year.

In his concurring opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Thomas called for Obergefell and other cases which rely on a legal doctrine known as “substantive due process” to be revisited. Such an outcome would put that 1996 back into force, but Mr Biden’s signature on the Respect for Marriage Act now largely forecloses that possibility, though it would still theoretically be possible for the court to allow states to once again refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even though the states would be required to recognise same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

The now-repealed law, commonly known as Doma, passed both the House and Senate by veto-proof majorities and was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton, who was facing reelection just two years after Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in decades after the 1994 midterm elections.

Mr Clinton’s then-press secretary, Mike McCurry, later told The New York Times that the former president’s decision to sign the bill, rather than let it become law without his signature after 10 days or vetoing it and forcing Congress to enact it over his objections, “was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year”.

Although the idea of same-sex marriage was still a relatively controversial one without much popular support, LGBT+ rights opponents were driven to push for Congress to enact a federal ban on recognising same-sex marriages after a 1993 Supreme Court of Hawaii ruling which held that the state had to show a compelling interest in banning same-sex marriages.

Because the US Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to marriages performed out of state, anti-LGBT+ social conservatives feared that any one state’s decision to begin recognising same-sex marriages could lead to gay and lesbian couples being eligible for a whole host of benefits. Although Doma didn’t ban states from allowing such marriages, it did prohibit the federal government from recognising them and exempted states from having to recognise “any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage ... or a right or claim arising from such relationship”.

Mr Biden’s signature on the new law is just the latest chapter in a decades-long evolution on LGBT+ rights. Although Mr Biden voted for Doma as a senator, as vice president under Mr Obama he was among the first high-ranking Democrats to endorse the idea of same-sex marriage.

During a 2012 appearance on Meet the Press, Mr Biden stunned pundits and drew some ire from the White House when he got ahead of the then-president on the issue as he and Mr Obama were running for reelection.

Even though Mr Obama was still positioning himself as opposed to same-sex marriage, polls taken at the time showed it had majority support from the American public.

Mr Biden acknowledged the changing public opinion, telling host David Gregory: “I just think that the good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition: who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love?"

"And that's what people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about, whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals ... I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men and women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties and, quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that,” he said.

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