Legislation to enshrine marriage equality into federal law cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday with bipartisan support, overcoming the 60-vote hurdle needed to advance toward passage.
The Respect for Marriage Act would codify into law the Supreme Court’s ruling making same-sex marriage a federal right, but with exemptions for religious organizations not to participate, a carveout that secured the Republican votes needed for the legislation to survive.
Proponents celebrated the Senate vote as a historic moment for the LGBTQ community that has long demanded marriage-rights protection under the law.
“It will make our country a better, fairer place to live. Passing this bill is as personal as it gets for many of us in this chamber. Myself included,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who explained how it was personal. “My daughter and her wife, my daughter-in-law, are expecting a baby next spring, and I want to do everything possible to make sure their rights are protected under federal law.”
The bill narrowly survived the test vote 62-37. All 50 Senate Democrats voted for it and were joined by 12 Republicans. The final vote on passage has not been scheduled, but it is expected to easily pass with a simple majority.
It then heads back to the House for final approval.
A different version of the legislation was passed by the House with bipartisan support this summer, but it stalled in the Senate amid religious liberty concerns from Republicans that it would spark lawsuits against faith-based organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. After pushing for a pre-Election Day vote, Democrats agreed to postpone until after the election so a religious liberty carveout could be written to win enough Republican support.
The bill requires that the federal government recognize same-sex marriage while providing exemptions for nonprofit religious organizations, such as churches that do not want to provide services. The carveout does not extend to private companies, such as wedding photographers or bakers, who remain exposed to litigation for refusing to provide goods or services related to same-sex marriages.
“The Respect for Marriage Act does not provide any meaningful benefit to same-sex marriages that does not already exist. It does significantly threaten religious liberty,” said Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who voted against the bill. “This legislation would enable activists to sue faith-based groups that provide vital services for our communities in an attempt to force them to abandon their deeply held beliefs about marriage, or close their doors.”
The Republicans who voted for the bill were Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Todd Young of Indiana.
Democrats feared that congressional action addressing marriage equality was needed after the Supreme Court struck down nationwide abortion rights in June.
“We often think, when we think about marriage, the wedding, and the ceremony, and the celebration, but we don’t often think about the hundreds upon hundreds of the rights and responsibilities that civil marriage confers upon couples,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin said.
The marriage-rights bill was spearheaded by Ms. Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who in 2012 became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.
In addition to same-sex couples, the bill offers protections for interracial marriages while making clear that the federal government does not recognize polygamous marriages.
As public support for same-sex marriage has increased, conservative-leaning religious groups that historically opposed it have changed their tune. This week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church, became the latest group to back the legislation.
Mr. Romney, who is Mormon, said the bill provides “important protections for religious liberty.”
“While I believe in traditional marriage, Obergefell is and has been the law of the land upon which LGBTQ individuals have relied,” he said in a statement, referring to the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage. “This legislation provides certainty to many LGBTQ Americans, and it signals that Congress — and I — esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally.”
• Ramsey Touchberry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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