By a vote of 267 to 157, the House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act last week, which declares that marriages performed in one state must be recognized in all states, without respect to “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.” It also codifies same-sex marriages for the purpose of benefits under federal law.
The legislation still needs to get through the Senate, which is unlikely before the August recess. Nonetheless, the House’s move to provide federal recognition of gay marriages — with the support of 47 Republicans — is a breakthrough worth celebrating. In addition to validating the country’s progress on gay rights, the vote signals that lawmakers may finally be embracing their responsibility to tackle social issues through the legislative process rather than leaving the task to the courts.
Congress previously addressed the issue of gay marriage in 1996, when it passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which former President Bill Clinton signed into law. That legislation defined marriage as between one man and one woman and banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court subsequently overruled DOMA, requiring states to recognize gay marriages sanctioned in other states and declaring gay couples eligible for the same federal benefits as straight people. However, the federal statute remained on the books. Thus, DOMA could have been reinstated if the conservative high court opted to overturn its prior gay marriage rulings.
Indeed, after the court’s decision last month in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization striking down abortion rights, progressive activists warned that other court decisions covering sodomy laws, gay marriage, and contraception could be next for repeal. Democratic lawmakers promptly introduced bills to codify protections on those issues — partly as “message” votes to energize their base and embarrass Republicans, who they assumed would block such bills. On gay marriage, however, nearly one-quarter of the House Republican conference voted in favor, and there’s a realistic prospect of finding the 10 Republicans necessary to produce the 60 votes to guarantee Senate passage.
Given current levels of partisanship in Washington, this is a significant achievement, particularly in an election year. It’s also how the system is supposed to work. Public support for gay marriage has never been higher, with more than 70% of Americans approving. Responding to such changes in public sentiment is — and always has been — a job for elected legislators. Yet, for too long, lawmakers have instead surrendered decisions about controversial social policies to unelected judges.
The bipartisan passage of the Respect for Marriage Act is a heartening sign that Congress can still do its job. Better late than never.