LGBTQ organizations respond to Respect for Marriage Act

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The House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act in a bipartisan 267-157 vote. The bill was introduced in the House the day before by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI).

The bill passed on the evening of July 19. It repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 — and codifies additional federal legal protections for the marriages of same-sex couples, transgender people and interracial couples. President Biden strongly supports the bill. 

“The right to marriage confers vital legal protections, dignity and full participation in our society,” stated the Biden Administration. “No person should face discrimination because of who they are or whom they love, and every married couple in the United States deserves the security of knowing that their marriage will be defended and respected.” 

DOMA was nullified by the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, but has not been officially repealed. The Respect for Marriage Act would fix that, ensuring that marriage equality is no longer tied to a Supreme Court decision. This is critical, say LGBTQ activists given Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion that the Obergefell decision was “demonstrably erroneous” and needs to be reconsidered.

“At a time when our community — especially LGBTQ+ youth and our trans siblings — are under constant attack, it’s unfortunate that we need to introduce a marriage equality bill given that the majority of Americans consider it settled law, but it is necessary as millions of Americans potentially have their marriage at risk because of activist judges on the Supreme Court,” said Christian Fuscarino, the executive director of New Jersey’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, Garden State Equality. “LGBTQ+ community stands unified and ready to act as people’s basic liberties are being chipped away, such as reproductive freedom, diverse curriculum in schools that keep our kids safe, and healthcare for trans youth.”

Justice Thomas, in his concurrence in the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, wrote that the Court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Griswold decided that the Constitution protected privacy of marital couples to contraception, Lawrence protects privacy in same-sex relationships and Obergefell legalized marriage equality nationwide. Justice Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito also issued a formal rebuke of Obergefell on the Court’s opening day in October 2020.

Justice Thomas also expressed this belief in his concurrence in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs decision in itself and Justice Thomas’ comments make it abundantly clear that fundamental rights that we have taken for granted and which the Supreme Court has affirmed for over a century are at risk say LGBTQ activists.

“LGBTQ people are under attack: in state legislatures, by Governors, on social media and within the Supreme Court, where anti-LGBTQ justices have stated their desire to reconsider LGBTQ protections from privacy to marriage equality,” Tweeted Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis after hearing the news. “We welcome today’s House passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, a critical step to enshrine existing protections for LGBTQ couples and families, as well as interracial couples.” 

According to GLAAD, the bill requires, for federal law purposes, that an individual be considered married if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed. This gives same sex and interracial couples additional certainty that they will continue to receive equal treatment under federal law as all other married couples — as the Constitution requires.

The bill will also prohibit any person acting under state law from denying full faith and credit to an out of state marriage based on the sex, race, ethnicity or national origin of the individuals in the marriage. It provides the Attorney General with the authority to pursue enforcement actions, and creates a private right of action for any individual harmed by a violation of this provision.

Recent data from The Williams Institute show that at least 200,000 same-sex couples live in a Southern state. Protecting the freedom to marry through legislative measures like the Respect for Marriage Act disproportionately concerns these families. The couples live in states with either an unenforceable constitutional amendment or state statute still on the books that bans same-sex couples from marriage. 

“There is a unique need for this federal law in the South,” Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality said. “For the one-third of LGBTQ Americans who live in the South, the Respect for Marriage Act is vital legislation. All LGBTQ Southerners live in a state with laws prohibiting the freedom to marry — laws that are unenforceable because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling. Extreme anti-LGBTQ forces are working at every level to erode LGBTQ equality. If they prevail in having Obergefell revisited or overturned, these families and marriages would be at risk.

“We need to be doing everything we can to protect LGBTQ equality in this unprecedented era of attack — and now,” said Beach-Ferrara. “The Senate should follow the lead of the House by passing the Respect for Marriage Act… It’s up to all of us, from our members of Congress to state lawmakers to local communities, to band together and prepare for the work ahead so we can live in a country where your zip code doesn’t determine your rights.”

Journalist Chelsey Johnstone is the former Project Manager for Greater Trenton and was primary writer for TrentonDaily. She is a senior journalism major at Montclair State University and former communication and music student at Mercer County Community College. While attending her community college, Chelsey led her student newspaper, The College VOICE, as Editor-in-Chief. Now, Chelsey is working to advance her journalist skills freelancing for Out in Jersey Magazine and Unclear Magazine with the hope of positively impacting the world of reporting.