A bill safeguarding federal recognition of same-sex marriage has cleared a procedural hurdle in the US Senate amid concerns that the US Supreme Court could undermine such rights in the future.
Fifty Democrats and 12 Republicans on Wednesday voted in favour of limiting debate on the bill before a final vote, which would require the federal government to recognise any marriage that is legal in the state in which it was performed.
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US President Joe Biden welcomed the vote results, thanking Congress for sending “a strong message that Republicans and Democrats can work together to secure the fundamental right of Americans to marry the person they love”.
Biden also urged US legislators to approve the bill and send it to his desk; The measure will have to pass through a number of procedural hoops in the Senate before returning to the House of Representatives for a final vote and, if passed, Biden’s signature.
LGBTQ rights advocates have grown worried that the US Supreme Court, which struck down the right to abortion in a landmark decision overturning Roe v Wade in June, could reverse a 2015 decision that legalised gay marriage across the US.
The bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, would not block individual states from banning same-sex or interracial marriages if a future Supreme Court decision allowed them to do so.
With Republicans poised to take control of the House of Representatives in the new term, passing such legislation is all but assured to face stiffer barriers in the near future. Meanwhile, Republican senators may feel less pressure to appeal to segments of the party still opposed to same-sex marriage now that polls have closed.
“I firmly believe that passing bipartisan marriage protections would be one of the more significant accomplishments in what’s already been a significantly productive Congress,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the bill was brought to an initial vote.
“It will do so much good for so many people who want nothing more than to live their lives without the fear of discrimination.”
Both same-sex and interracial marriage have been legal at the federal level in the US following the 2015 Obergefell v Hodges Supreme Court ruling and the 1967 Loving v Virginia ruling, respectively.
However, advocates have argued that the conservative-majority US Supreme Court could deploy similar reasoning used to overturn Roe v Wade – a move that did away with federal abortion rights protection – to undo the marriage rulings, and return the question of their legality to state governments.
Those concerns were piqued by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote in his Roe opinion that Obergefell v Hodges was among several cases that should be revisited. The cases he listed did not refer to Loving v Virginia.
Still, the legislation being pushed by Democrats would not legalise same-sex and interracial marriage outright, nor would it stop states from banning such marriages if a Supreme Court ruling were to allow that. Instead, it would force the federal government to recognise any marriage that was legal in the state it was performed.
The effort comes as same-sex marriage has been increasingly accepted across the US, with recent polling showing more than two-thirds of the public supports same-sex unions.
A similar bill, which passed in the House in July, saw more support from Republicans than expected, with 47 members of the party joining all of the chamber’s Democrats in support.
Most Senate Republicans remained silent before Wednesday’s vote, with only three members of the party – Susan Collins, Thom Tillis and Rob Portman – stating they would vote in favour.
Proposed amendments to the legislation, negotiated by supporters to bring more Republicans on board, would clarify that it does not affect the rights of private individuals or businesses. Another change would make it clear that a marriage is between two people, an effort to ward off some far-right criticism that the legislation could endorse polygamy.
More open social attitudes towards gay rights were on display during the midterm elections, with a record 678 openly LGBTQ candidates – running as both Democrats and Republicans – appearing on the ballot during the general election, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
That came amid a deluge of state-level legislation that advocates say has targeted the rights of LGBTQ people – particularly transgender people – in recent years.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became the most recent conservative-leaning group to back the legislation.
In a statement, the Utah-based church said that its doctrine would continue to consider same-sex relationships to be against God’s commandments, but that it would support rights for same-sex couples as long as they did not infringe upon religious groups’ rights to believe as they choose.
Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who became the US Senate’s first openly gay member in 2012, said newfound acceptance among some conservative groups in the US comes as more LGBTQ individuals and families have become visible, changing hearts and minds on the issue.
“And slowly laws have followed,” she said. “It is history.”