U.S. senators took a key step toward protecting same-sex and interracial marriages Wednesday as they advanced the Respect for Marriage Act, 62-37, to a final vote.

Twelve Republicans voted to advance the legislation, which will head to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law after final passage in the U.S. House.

The legislation would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman under federal law. It would also require states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages performed in other states, although it would not prevent states from passing laws banning those marriages.

“This legislation unites Americans,” Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, one of the act’s co-sponsors and the first openly gay woman elected to the U.S. Senate, said Wednesday. “With the Respect for Marriage Act, we can ease the fear that millions of same-sex and interracial couples have – that their freedoms and their rights could be stripped away – by passing this bill. We are guaranteeing same-sex and interracial couples, regardless of where they live, that their marriage is legal, and that they will continue to enjoy the rights and responsibilities that all other marriages are afforded.”

Abortion ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. But the court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision in June overturning a right to abortion at the federal level raised concerns about federal protections for other rights.

In his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court should reconsider other decisions based on the right to privacy, such as guarantees for the right to marry or the right to use birth control, arguing the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee those rights. Thomas’ opinion led to widespread concern the court would next move to overturn the right to same-sex marriage. A bipartisan group of senators worked on the Respect for Marriage Act to address this possibility.

A version of the legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year with support from 47 Republicans.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who was reelected last week to represent the Southeastern state of Florida, told cable news network CNN earlier this year the bill was “a stupid waste of time.”

The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization advancing religious freedom, said in a statement Tuesday that the Respect for Marriage Act was unconstitutional and did not provide “any protection for religious individuals or organizations, and the subsequent amendments to the bill exclude a large percentage of constitutionally and statutorily protected religious organizations.”

But Republican Senator Susan Collins, another co-sponsor of the legislation, said on the Senate floor Wednesday that concerns about religious liberty were a false argument.

“This legislation would make clear in federal law that nonprofit religious organizations and religious educational institutions cannot be compelled to participate in or support the solicitation or celebration of marriages that are contrary to their religious beliefs,” she said.

In a May 2022 Gallup poll, 71% of Americans said they supported same-sex marriage. Only 27% supported it when the poll was first taken in 1996.

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