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Bill protecting same-sex, interracial marriages heads to president’s desk

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Bill protecting same-sex, interracial marriages heads to president’s desk

President Joe Biden visited Clark Atlanta University on Jan. 11 to discuss the need for voting rights legislation and call on Congress to pass voting rights bills introduced by Georgia's senators. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated.

Washington, D.C. — The United States House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday, Dec. 8, that protects same-sex and interracial marriages. The bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

The Senate passed the legislation on Nov. 29 with a 61 to 36 vote. The House passed the bill with 258 to 169 votes, with 39 Republicans joining Democrats voting in favor, according to CNN.

The bill doesn’t set a national requirement that all states have to legalize same-sex marriage, but it does require individual states to recognize another state’s legal marriage, CNN reported.

The Respect for Marriage Act was introduced in Congress following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer. In the ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas expressed interest in reconsidering other decisions, like rulings made on same-sex marriage, according to USA Today.

“The Respect for Marriage Act provides a backstop in the event that the Supreme Court decides to overrule the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States. It creates a similar backstop if the Court overruled Loving v. Virginia,” said Tim Holbrook, a law professor at Emory University. “Justice Thomas suggested that the Supreme Court should revisit earlier precedent, including Obergefell, as well as those that struck down sodomy laws and bans on contraception.  Conspicuously, he did not call into question Loving.”

Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015 by the Supreme Court, and interracial marriage was legalized in 1967.

“The government has a responsibility to protect the American people’s liberties, rights, and freedoms, and this includes ensuring their marriages will always be recognized,” Rep. Hank Johnson (GA-4) said in a statement.

Johnson is a member of the Equality Caucus and was proud to have voted for the Respect for Marriage Act.

“Same-sex and interracial couples should not have to live in fear that a future Supreme Court decision could invalidate their marriages,” he said. “I am proud that Congress took this proactive measure to protect these marriages and send the message that love still wins.”

The bill also features religious exemptions that would protect religious and nonprofit organizations from having to provide support for same-sex marriages, according to CNN.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, was excited to hear the news of the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“It’s a really important and significant step for LGBTQ rights around the country. I was very pleased to this finally happen,” Graham previously said.

For Graham, there are three points that are important to take away from the legislation. He added that it provides a sense of calm and protection.

“First and foremost, it codifies into federal law that regardless of what may happen in the Supreme Court in the future, the federal government will respect, recognize and protect both same-sex marriages, as well as interracial marriages,” Graham said. “This is important because as we saw with the Dobbs decision earlier this year, if the Supreme Court overturns precedence that is used to protect people’s civil rights, those rights can be in jeopardy if left up to the states to decide.”

In Georgia, a state constitutional amendment passed in 2004 that prohibited the state from recognizing any form of same-sex relationships – marriages, domestic partnerships and civil unions, Graham said. The amendment also doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state, according to the Georgia Recorder.

The amendment was declared unconstitutional when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

“This federal law would not necessarily nullify those, but would prevent them from having a harmful effect of completely reversing people’s marriages or completely disallowing marriages to go forward in the future,” Graham said.

Holbrook also said that the state amendment would only come back into effect if the Supreme Court overrules its 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage. If the decision is overruled, the Respect for Marriage Act would protect same-sex couples who are currently married in the state.

“If Obergefell is overruled, those laws would come back into force,” Holbrook said. “What the Respect for Marriage Act does is that it would require Georgia to recognize a same-sex marriage that was performed in another state where it was legal.  It also protects existing marriages.”

The second point that Graham said is important but overlooked is that as the bill passes through Congress, it has garnered bipartisan support.

“A number of the Republicans who have supported this bill are very conservative Republicans, so it gives me hope that the entire issue of LGBTQ rights can still find bipartisan support,” Graham said. “In an election year and a legislative year where we’ve seen so many attacks on the LGBTQ community, it’s important to have hope that we may be able to actually still get legislation on the federal level passed in the future.”

The third significant point for Graham is that conservative faith organizations and traditions, like the Orthodox Union and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have publicly supported this bill.

“I believe that religious exemption language is a common sense approach to provide assurances that this law cannot be used to push back or diminish the constitutional rights that are already enshrined for clergy and faith organizations…that clergy won’t be forced to marry any couple they don’t want to and that those religious organizations, if their denomination or their religious tradition does not recognize same-sex marriages, they would not be forced to perform them inside their sacred spaces,” he said.

He added that it’s important that conservative organizations have made a strong statement supporting LGBTQ rights, as it comes to specific legislation.

“It was their support that helped bring the Republicans on board,” Graham said. “That gives me hope that we can continue to have dialogue in the future and that we can find a way to protect members of the LGBTQ community as well as people of faith.”

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