Photo by Benson Kua, via Wikimedia Commons

By Hunter Savery and Grace Yarrow, Capital News Service

The Senate on Wednesday voted 62-37 to advance a bipartisan bill that would provide federal protection for same-sex and interracial marriage.

Twelve Senate Republicans joined Democrats to advance the Respect for Marriage Act, which already passed by the House of Representatives by wide margins in July.

“We are on the cusp of a historic vote in the Senate because of everybody’s efforts,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said.

If passed, the measure would require the federal government to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages. This would include the repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and would codify the Supreme Court’s rulings in Obergefell v. Hodges and Loving v. Virginia.

Rep. Jerrod Nadler, D-New York, introduced the original version of the Respect for Marriage Act in 2009.

The bill has been introduced five times, but only picked up momentum following the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturning Roe v. Wade, which established the right to abortion. In his concurrence with the Dobbs decision, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the court should reconsider Obergefell.

Multiple senators referenced Thomas’s suggestion in their floor speeches Wednesday, including Baldwin and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to the Senate, called Thomas’s opinion an “open invitation to litigators across the country to bring their cases to the court, inevitably instilling fear among millions of Americans.”

Lawmakers and marriage equality activists became concerned that the court could possibly overturn Obergefell and return the question of same-sex marriage to the states. Supporters of the bill are aiming to prevent this outcome by enshrining recognition of same-sex marriage in federal law.

The 2022 version of the bill also includes protection for interracial marriages, which while protected under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia, is not codified in federal law.

Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, voted to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed with the bill.

“It is long past time for Congress to make clear that equal rights are guaranteed across America, no matter who you love, who you marry, or where you live,” Van Hollen told Capital News Service. “The Respect for Marriage Act ensures that, no matter where in America they live, all married couples are afforded equal rights, freedom, and dignity.”

Cardin said before the vote Wednesday that he was “optimistic” the Senate would pass the bill.

“Today is going to be a great day for the United States Senate and the American people,” Cardin told CNS. “We’re going to be able to protect the marriage equality in our country.”

A Maryland law legalizing same-sex marriage went into effect in 2013. The state began recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions in 2012.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Washington, D.C., in 2010. It has been legal in Virginia since 2014.

Following bipartisan support in the House with a 267-157 vote – with 47 Republicans voting in support of the bill – the Respect for Marriage Act was delayed and negotiated for months before Wednesday. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the time to work together to ensure enough senators would vote to pass the bill.

Republican supporters of the bill highlighted an amendment to the act that recognized protection of religious liberties and clarified that the act would not allow polygamy.

Portman called current federal law a “disconnect” from American opinions, as lawmakers pointed to polling that has shown more than 70% of Americans — including a majority of Republicans —support same-sex marriage. The Ohio senator said he recognized that “millions” of American couples are hoping for peace of mind about the permanent validity of their marriage.

“We must not let them down,” Portman said.

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