In a politically wise move this week, Democrats in the House voted to pass the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which would defend same-sex marriage from the whims of a right-wing Supreme Court bloc that has no respect for legal precedent. By forcing votes on this bill, they also revealed how the Republican Party has shifted on the issue of marriage equality, for better and for worse, since the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. (The new bill would overturn DOMA.) The Christian Right has a lot of power over the GOP, but on the issue of same-sex marriage, this bill shows they’re losing their grip.
The current bill isn’t controversial. If passed, all it would do is require all states to respect the marriage laws of other states (as they already do with straight couples). So a gay couple married in New York would still be considered legally married in Alabama even if the Supreme Court overturned Obergefell, left marriage rules to the states, and a Republican legislature decided to ban same-sex marriage. The same bill would also protect interracial marriage the same way.
Since President Joe Biden has already promised to sign the bill, the only question now is whether 10 Republicans in the Senate will support it in order to override a filibuster.
But while those logistics are being hashed out, the House vote has already been plenty revealing.
Consider that, in 1996, DOMA passed in the House 342 – 67. 118 of those pro-DOMA votes came from Democrats. The Senate wasn’t any different, voting 85-14 to pass it, with 32 Democrats supporting it. (In both chambers, just about every Republican supported the bill.)
It was bipartisan bigotry, signed into law by a Democratic president. Republicans were virtually unanimous in their opposition to marriage equality, and they had help.
This week, we saw a reversal of those numbers in a way that would have been unfathomable 25 years ago. I never could have imagined writing this decades ago, but it’s true: Same-sex marriage has become a wedge issue in the Republican Party.
Not only did every Democrat in the House support marriage equality this time around, they managed to peel off 47 Republican votes, including some from the MAGA crowd like Elise Stefanik and Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry. For those Republicans, this just isn’t a battle they care to fight anymore. Maybe it’s their relative youth. Maybe it’s the fact that the vast majority of the country supports marriage equality. Maybe they believe this is a politically strategic move. Maybe they just prefer to focus their bigotry elsewhere.
Whatever the case, the idea that dozens of Republicans in Congress now support same-sex marriage suggests that a decades-long civil rights battle has been won by the LGBTQ side and their allies. Even as Christian nationalism infects the highest echelons of politics, “traditional marriage” has become a lost cause for the Religious Right. Some of those Republicans opposing it may very well see their pro-bigotry votes used against them in coming months; it’s a liability in many parts of the country to oppose marriage equality.
Just consider a recent Gallup poll that found 71% of Americans support gay marriage, including vast majorities of non-churchgoers and infrequent churchgoers. A majority of people over 65, as well as a majority of Protestants, now support marriage equally too.
Those 47 Republicans votes came, by the way, despite the official platform of the Party still saying, “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.” (The 2016 platform, which was recycled in 2020, was written in part by prominent conservative Christians.)
Even as our democracy is dying in so many ways, let this be a reminder that the arc of the moral universe can indeed bend toward justice.
At the same time, the vote reminded us that 157 Republicans in Congress still believe same-sex marriages should be invalid. Gay couples have fallen in love, gotten married, started families, and only strengthened the institution of marriage. The sky didn’t fall after the Obergefell ruling. And yet the (predominantly Christian) hate that permeates the GOP still has a grip on most members of the party. It’s clear no amount of evidence or popular support will convince them to take the moral path forward, at least on this issue, at least for the time being. They’ve had plenty of time to consider it and they still got it wrong.
The usual gang of Christian bigots was apoplectic over the vote. Tony Perkins said it would “have tragic consequences for our culture and for our country.” Todd Starnes suggested the “marriage between Republicans and Evangelicals is headed for divorce court.” The Gospel Coalition called it “discouraging.” Newt Gingrich will eventually release a statement on the sanctity of marriage after talking it over with his third wife. You gotta love the infighting.
But for once, Democrats found an issue that splits the Republican Party and they smartly put it a vote. The Senate needs to do the same thing ASAP given that Republicans there are also all over the place with their responses.
If it infuriates the Christian Right, consider it a moral and political victory.