President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday, codifying into law protections for same-sex and interracial couples.
“The road to this moment has been long, but those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up,” Biden said. “So many of you put your relationships on the line, your jobs on the line, your lives on the line, to fight for the law I’m about to sign. For me and the entire nation: thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The signing took place in a large ceremony with thousands of attendees on the White House South Lawn. Several plaintiffs of LGBTQ rights legal cases stood on the steps behind Biden as he spoke. Biden was joined by first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke before Biden, and artists Sam Smith and Cindy Lauper performed.
The Respect for Marriage Act does not guarantee the right to marry. It specifies that states must recognize same-sex marriages across state lines and that same-sex couples have the same federal benefits as any married couple.
The renewed push to codify the protections came after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which affirmed the right to have an abortion. Justice Clarence Thomas in his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization concurring opinion listed the 2015 ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that affirmed right to same-sex marriage, as another landmark case that may be due for review.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks prior to signing the “Respect for Marriage Act,” a landmark bill protecting same-sex marriage, during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Thomas also listed Griswold vs. Connecticut, the 1965 ruling in which the Supreme Court said married couples have the right to obtain contraceptives and Lawrence v. Texas, which in 2003 established the right to engage in private sexual acts.
Biden cited the case and Thomas’s concurring opinion in his remarks Tuesday.
“Sadly we must also acknowledge another reason we’re here,” Biden said. “Congress is acting because an extreme Supreme Court has stripped away the right important to many Americans that has existed for half a century: the Dobbs decision. The court’s extreme conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade and the right to choose.”
The Respect for Marriage Act does not codify same-sex marriage, though. It means that if the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, states that oppose same-sex marriage could outlaw it, as anti-abortion states are doing after this summer’s ruling.
“It’s one thing for the Supreme Court to rule on a case,” Biden said. “It’s another thing entirely if the elected representatives of the people take a vote on the floor of the United States Congress and say clearly ‘love is love, right is right, justice is justice.'”
Democrats were joined by twelve Republican senators and 39 GOP representatives to pass the bill. It passed 258-169 in the House on Thursday with bipartisan support after successfully going through the Senate the week prior in a 61-36 vote.
Pelosi, reflecting on her long career in the House, said one of the last bills she signed at the end of her first stint as House speaker repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which barred LGBTQ servicemembers from discussing their sexuality. She noted the Respect for Marriage Act will be one of the last bills she will sign as she ends her second stretch as speaker.
Biden’s views, like those of many Americans, shifted to support same-sex marriage over his lifetime. Earlier in his decades long Senate tenure, Biden voted for legislation that would curb the advancement of LGBTQ rights like the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA, as it came to be known, was overturned by the signing of Tuesday’s legislation.
As recently as the 2008 election, Biden said in a vice presidential debate that neither he nor former President Barack Obama, then a candidate, supported changing the civil definition of marriage. But in 2012 then-Vice President Biden announced his support for same-sex marriage on NBC’s Meet the Press, backing the measure even before Obama did.
Harris said she often thinks of the week of Valentine’s Day in 2004 when she performed some of the country’s first marriages of same-sex couples at San Francisco City Hall.
“I saw tears of joy that day as people celebrated basic human rights, the right to be recognized as a family, the right to be with the person you love,” Harris said. She went on to quote a San Francisco champion for LGBTQ rights and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.
“As the great Harvey Milk once said: ‘Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard,'” Harris said. “And because you made your voices heard, marriage is more secure.”