Representatives from HRC and GLAD virtually met with media the morning of Nov. 16 to discuss the implications of the Respect of Marriage Act. That legislation, scheduled for a Senate vote the same day, codifies marriage equality into federal law.
The measure, according to Cathryn Oakley, HRC's state legislative director and senior counsel, is "important insurance for what comes next," should the U.S. Supreme Court revisit its Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized marriage equality nationally in 2015.
The new legislation directs that the federal government must respect marriages across the nation and that states must respect marriages that take place in other states. The Respect for Marriage Act essentially "closes the door" to the prohibitive measures put in place by the Defense of Marriage Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Oakley added.
If Obergefell v. Hodges was reversed, marriage equality rules would be kicked back to the states. The new law means that the federal government and individual states need to recognize marriages that take place anywhere in the country.
Mary Bonauto, senior director of civil rights and legal strategies at GLAD said that the Respect for Marriage Act was a "status quo bill" that is legally on "very solid ground," adding, "It is going to do what millions of children and families need."
The Obergefell decision made clear that Americans who did not have the right to marry could not possibly be equal under federal and was a solid decision, Bonauto said. But the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision returning reproductive rights to the states "really created a sense of alarm" among activists and politicians, added HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in the Dobbs decision, suggested that the Court revisit a number of its previous decisions, among them Obergefell. Stacy said that the new measure is for all purposes "a backstop" that can at least reduce the harms imposed upon LGBTQ+ Americans.
Stacy further noted that most Americans now support marriage equality, and that Senators were charged by a vote for a similar measure in the House that garnered support from 47 Republican members of Congress. If, as expected, the Senate bill can get the 60 votes it needs, both the House and Senate votes would be expressions of bipartisanship very rarely seem in either chamber, he added.
But Oakley cautioned that an enormous amount of activism and advocacy work remain. The Nov. 16 measure would not be a replacement for the Equality Act, which would offer nationwide legal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans in numerous realms outside marriage equality. The would also not direct or prevent states from trying to implement specific rules about marriage equality.
"This is one important slice of an incredibly large pie in front of us," Oakley said.