President Biden signed the so-called Respect for Marriage Act into law on Dec. 13, writing gay marriage into federal law seven years after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to the practice in the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.
In a signing ceremony, Biden said, “Today America takes the final step toward equality, toward liberty and justice—not just for some, but for everyone—everyone.”
But not everyone was feeling comforted by those words. Religious liberty advocates believe the Respect for Marriage Act will unleash a rash of litigation targeting people with religious objections to gay marriage.
The bill passed by a 61-36 vote in the Senate on Nov. 29 and 258-169 in the House on Dec. 8, despite efforts from conservatives to either stop the bill or add meaningful religious liberty protections.
In the Senate, 12 Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill, while in the House, 39 GOP members voted with their Democratic colleagues.
The law requires states to recognize gay marriages performed in other states, repeals key parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and requires the federal government to recognize gay marriages. It carves out protection for churches that object to hosting same-sex weddings, but conservatives warn the law falls short of protecting religious liberty and rights of conscience.
The bill’s critics say Christian schools and other faith-based nonprofits are left legally vulnerable under the act, as well as private business owners, government employees and others who hold Biblical marriage views.
Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who offered one of the amendments that was rejected, said following the vote: “The Respect for Marriage Act isn’t about equality. It’s about making some people’s rights more important than others. I voted against this bill because it will lead to violations of Americans’ constitutional right to live their faith.”
The Respect for Marriage Act provides a “private right of action” to sue for anyone who feels harmed because of their participation in or support of same-sex marriage—a red flag for critics concerned about religious liberty and rights of conscience.
Tony Perkins, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, said after the Senate passage, “This bill is a club, with which the left will attempt to beat people of orthodox faith—who believe in marriage as God designed it and history has defined—into submission.”
Amendments by Lankford and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sought to address the concern of increased liability for any person or entity that opposes gay marriage.
Lankford, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, told his colleagues the provision would lead to “countless numbers of lawsuits” from trial lawyers and LGBTQ activists.
“I’ve had individuals that are sponsors of this bill say, ‘None of those things are what we intend,’” Lankford told the Senate before the vote. “But courts don’t rule on intentions of Congress. They rule on the text that we actually put out.”
“This is a discouraging development in our country’s storied history of protecting the free exercise of religion,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had also offered an amendment to safeguard religious liberty.
The final Senate vote for the bill included every Democrat and all 12 Republicans who voted to advance the bill. Lee’s amendment drew support from 11 of those Republicans. Only one, Susan Collins of Maine, opposed the amendment. Also, one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for Lee’s amendment, which failed in a 49-48 vote.
But none of the 12 GOP defectors held Lee’s amendment as conditional for supporting the bill’s final passage.
Lee’s amendment, parts of which Lankford also included in his, would have ensured the federal government could not discriminate against anyone, “wholly or partially,” based on that person’s “sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction” about marriage. Further, it would have protected against the altering of federal tax status or disallowing participation in government programs or employment for people and institutions based on their marriage views.
In the days leading up to the bill’s passage, U.S. Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.) pointedly criticized two of the senators who voted with the Democrats in the first cloture vote to advance the bill—her own state’s Roy Blunt and Iowa’s Joni Ernst. Both were once chairs of the Senate Values Action Team, which exists to promote pro-family and pro-life policies.
Other GOP senators who voted for the bill were Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Capito of West Virginia, Mitt Romney of Utah and Todd Young of Indiana.
Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook after the Senate vote: “The ramifications for people who stand with traditional marriage between a man and a woman are serious. … This underscores once again how critical it is that we elect the right people to offices of leadership. Our very way of life and the future of this nation depends on it.” ©2022 BGEA
Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP