President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, a bill protecting marriage for LGBTQ+ and interracial couples, while praising those who had long fought for equal rights under law – many of whom were present at the White House ceremony.
“My fellow Americans: the road to this moment has been long. But those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up,” the president said, adding: “So many of you put your relationships on the line, your jobs and your lives on the line to fight for the law I’m about to sign.”
“From me and the entire nation: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said.
Some of those in attendance included lawmakers who helped shepherd the legislation through Congress, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who became the first openly lesbian member of the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1999 and 2013, respectively.
Also in attendance were many same-sex couples and activists who helped sway the tide of federal precedent and public opinion, including Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith, one of seven couples who served as plaintiffs in the Goodridge v. Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health case, in which the court held that the state must recognize same-sex marriage in 2004.
“It takes many to bend the arc of history towards justice. Even now, there are so many places where people in our community are under attack. The work will continue,” Heidi Nortonsmith said. “But look at how far we've come.”
The White House on Monday predicted thousands of people would be in attendance at Tuesday’s bill signing, where artists Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper introduced the president to a raucous crowd.
Shortly before the performance, Lauper had joined the White House press briefing alongside press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who is the first Black woman and openly gay person to serve in the role.
"For once, our families — mine and a lot of my friends and people you know, sometimes your neighbors — we can rest easy tonight, because our families are validated,” Lauper said in part. “And because now we're allowed to love who we love, which sounds odd to say. But Americans can now love who we love."
"And bless Joe Biden and all the people that worked on this for allowing people not to worry and their children not to worry about their future,” she added, before heading outside to perform the song “True Colors” for the audience.
“Today we celebrate our progress – from Hawaii, the first state to declare that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional, to Massachusetts, the first state to legalize marriage equality for couples like Gina and Heidi,” Biden said in his own remarks on Tuesday.
The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act was spurred in part by the Supreme Court’s decision over the summer to overturn federal abortion protections.
At the time, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that the high court should, in the future, “reconsider” a number of other key rulings, including landmark decisions that granted a right to contraception and same-sex marriage.
"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote. “Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”
President Biden on Tuesday acknowledged there is more work to be done in order to preemptively protect those rights, and encouraged Congress to pass the the Equality Act, a bill that would encode anti-discrimination protections against sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity into federal law with respect to housing, credit, employment and other federally-funded programs.
The president also criticized a swath of legislation introduced in statehoods over the past year that aim to prevent gender-affirming treatment and care for minors, saying of attacks on LGBTQ+ individuals and families: "It must stop."
“Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia – they're all connected. But the antidote to hate is love," Biden said. "This law and the love it defends strike 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."
The bill signed by Biden on Tuesday says that if a same-sex or interracial couple is legally married in one state and goes to a new state, the new state must recognize that union.
It also repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. That act was nullified by the ruling in Obergefell, but is still on the books.
“It is protecting against a potential future U.S. Supreme Court decision that has not happened yet, and may never happen,” Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at the George Washington University, told Spectrum News of the Respect for Marriage Act.
The bill does not, however, require states to change their laws in order to issue marriage licenses and ensures that religious non-profits will not be required to facilitate marriages that go against their beliefs. It further makes clear “that the bill does not require or authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages," the result of negotiations within the Senate aimed at garnering Republican support.
“It requires every other state in the country to recognize that marriage as valid, whether or not those other states go along with the rule,” Schiff Berman added. “So it's really a federal recognition statute more than it is a federal right to gay marriage.”
The Supreme Court’s summer ruling gave Democrats – and select Republicans – added urgency to codify marriage rights into law. Democrats in the Senate pushed a vote on the bill until after the midterm elections in November, aiming to hash out differences before sending it back to the House.
Ultimately, the Respect for Marriage Act passed with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, with 39 House Republicans joining every House Democrat in voting for its passage. The bill passed in the Senate with the support of 12 Republicans.
Lawmakers in some states split their votes either for or against the bill, while others presented a united front.
All of the Republicans in Kentucky's delegation, for example, voted against the bill, with some saying they did not think the legislation was necessary.
“This legislation is ostensibly designed to respond to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade,” Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., said in part. “But the majority in Dobbs was clear that this legislation is wholly unnecessary.”
Kentucky’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. John Yarmuth, tweeted he was proud to support the bill, writing: “LGBTQ & interracial couples are now guaranteed the legal recognition they deserve—regardless of who they are or whom they love.”
Meanwhile, Republican senators from Alaska and North Carolina – Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, as well as North Carolina’s Sen. Tom Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr – voted in favor of the bill, as did Maine’s split Senate delegation of Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats.
States where senators split their votes included Montana, where Democrat Sen. Jon Tester voted in favor of the bill while Republican Sen. Steve Daines voted against the legislation; in Utah, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney voted for the bill, while Republican Sen. Mike Lee voted against it. Three of Utah's four Republican representatives in the House – Reps. Blake Moore, Chris Stewart and John Curtis – also voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act; Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, voted “present.”
President Biden has praised the “bipartisan passage” of the bill, saying in part: “After the uncertainty of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Congress has restored a measure of security to millions of marriages and families.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act; Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, voted “present.”
Spectrum News' Justin Tasolides contributed to this report.