By David M. Greenwald
Washington, DC – President Joe Biden signed a historic piece of legislation into law Tuesday afternoon, codifying marriage rights for interracial and same-sex couples some believed were threatened by the Supreme Court following the overturning of Roe and Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion.
During the lame duck session of Congress, the Respect for Marriage Act reached the President’s desk as it passed the House last week on a bipartisan 258-169 vote along with a 61-36 Senate vote.
The moment marks an extraordinary turnaround in this country on an issue that as recently as 2008 saw California vote narrowly to support Prop. 8 and a ban on same-sex marriage in the same election in which they overwhelmingly elected Barack Obama, and with few in Congress wanting to touch the issue.
“Today is a good day. A day America takes a vital step toward equality,” Biden said at the signing ceremony on the South Lawn. “Toward liberty and justice not just for some, but for everyone.
“Marriage is a simple proposition. Who do you love? And will you be loyal to that person you love?” the President asked. “It’s not more complicated than that.”
Biden said the law he was about to sign recognizes that “everyone should have the right to answer those questions for themselves without the government interference,” and secures the federal “protections that come with marriage.
“For most of our nation’s history, we denied interracial couples and same-sex couples from these protections,” Biden said. “It failed to treat them with equal dignity and respect. And now, this law requires an interracial marriage and same-sex marriage must be recognized as legal in every state in the nation.”
The bill seemed improbable not that long ago. Public opinion, however, has shifted rapidly. By 2021, 68 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. That was up from 54 percent in 2014. In 2008, just 47.8 percent of California opposed a same-sex marriage ban when voting on Prop. 8.
The calculus has changed since the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage with the Obergefell ruling; however, this summer, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion drew alarms.
As Biden warned at the time, Justice Thomas “explicitly called to reconsider the right of marriage equality, the right of couples to make their choices on contraception. This is an extreme and dangerous path the Court is now taking us on.”
Later Biden said, “We want to make it clear: It’s not just about Roe and choice. It’s about – it’s about marriage – same-sex marriage. It’s about contraception. It’s about a whole range of things that are on the docket.”
Tuesday cemented a remarkable turnaround for Biden who supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Ten years ago, on Meet the Press, he caught many off guard with public support of same-sex marriage.
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said when asked whether he was comfortable with same-sex marriage.
Biden called these words unplanned but they caused a ripple effect, effectively forcing President Obama to make a similar statement a few days later.
“Today is a historic day. A day for jubilation,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “By enacting this law we are sending a message to LGBTQ Americans everywhere. You too deserve dignity. You too deserve equality. That’s about as an American ideal as they come.”
The Dobbs decision loomed large in this move.
“Congress is acting because an extreme Supreme Court is stripping away a right that has existed half a century,” Biden said.
Vice President Kamala Harris in introductory remarks recalled presiding over the nation’s first same-sex marriage in 2004.
“I saw tears of joy that day as people celebrated basic human rights. The right to be recognized as a family,” she said.
She added, “And because you made your voices heard marriages are more secure and Joe Biden is our President. A President who elevated LGBTQI+ leaders to every level of our administration. Who fights for the safety and freedom and dignity of all people.”
Outgoing House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the legislation would not have been possible without advocacy.
“You all made this happen,” she said. “I was overwhelmed with emotion when bringing down the gavel on this issue.”