The U.S. Senate voted on November 29 to pass the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), sending the bill back to the House for a final vote before it reaches the president’s desk.
The bill, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and provide for federal recognition of same-sex marriages, has drawn criticism from Catholic leaders for not providing strong enough legal protections for individuals who believe marriage to be between one man and one woman, as taught by the Catholic Church.
The present bill would not require any state to allow same-sex couples to marry, but would require states to recognize any and all marriages — regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” — contracted in other states.
The bill garnered bipartisan support, clearing the Senate by a vote of 61-36, and will return now to the House. Should the House pass this amended version, the bill will proceed to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature, which he has pledged to give. Biden first signaled his support for same-sex marriage a decade ago, putting him at odds with the teaching of his Catholic faith.
The Senate had voted 62-37 in mid-November to end debate on the bill by reaching the required 60-vote threshold. Twelve Republicans crossed the aisle to join all the Senate’s Democrats in that vote, and the same number joined in the November 29 vote.
The final version of the bill includes a bipartisan amendment meant to ensure that nonprofit religious organizations will not be required to provide services, facilities, or goods for the celebration of a same-sex marriage. It also provides for individual conscience protections to the extent provided under the Constitution and federal law, and makes clear the bill does not authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriage.
DOMA, which the present bill would repeal, is a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that defined marriage federally as the union of a man and a woman, reserved federal benefits to heterosexual couples, and permitted states not to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states. DOMA was already effectively nullified by the 2013 and 2015 Supreme Court decisions United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
The Catholic bishops of the United States had urged Senators in July to oppose the Respect for Marriage Act, expressing concerns about the bill’s effect on the religious freedom of those who hold to a traditional definition of marriage.
And in November, following the bill’s advancement in the U.S. Senate, the nation’s Catholic bishops reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on marriage. They also reiterated their concerns that “the legislation could lead to discrimination against individuals who hold to a traditional view of marriage.”
“The Catholic Church will always uphold the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a November 17 statement.
“[T]he act offers only limited protections. Those protections fail to resolve the main problem with the act: in any context in which conflicts between religious beliefs and same-sex civil marriage arise, the act will be used as evidence that religious believers must surrender to the state’s interest in recognizing same-sex civil marriages,” Cardinal Dolan continued.
Ahead of the November 29 vote, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called on the 12 Republican senators who voted to advance the RFMA to adopt explicit protections, by way of an amendment he introduced, for individuals who believe marriage is between one man and one woman. Lee had argued that the RFMA will lead to more litigation against those who hold to a traditional view of marriage, unless the bill explicitly provides protections for them and not merely the possibility of a defense in court.
“Instead of subjecting churches, religious nonprofits, and persons of conscience to undue scrutiny or punishment by the federal government because of their views on marriage, we should make explicitly clear that this legislation does not constitute a national policy endorsing a particular view of marriage that threatens the tax-exempt status of faith-based nonprofits,” Lee wrote in a November letter to his fellow senators.
“As we move forward, let us be sure to keep churches, religious charities, and religious universities out of litigation in the first instance.”
Lee’s amendment ultimately failed November 29 by a vote of 48-49.
The RFMA represents one of the first legislative responses to the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June. While the majority opinion in Dobbs said that “this decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right,” Democrats have pointed to Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion suggesting the court should reconsider all “substantive due process” cases, including the 2015 Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage.
(Photo from Catholic News Agency, public domain.)
By Jonah McKeown, Catholic News Agency