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Senate Advances Historic Bill to Protect Same-Sex Marriage

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The Senate voted 62-37 on Wednesday to advance legislation codifying protections for same-sex and interracial marriage, signaling the bill has secured enough Republican votes to pass the landmark bill into federal law.

All 50 members of the Democratic caucus and 12 Republicans voted to advance the legislation, limiting debate on the measure and moving closer to its final passage. The crucial procedural vote comes after months of negotiations by a bipartisan group of Senators—Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina—to draft an amendment that would secure the remaining Republican votes needed to reach the 60 vote threshold.

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On Wednesday, Collins, Portman, and Tillis along with their Republican colleagues Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Mitt Romney of Utah, Richard Burr of Virginia, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Todd Young of Indiana, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia voted to move towards a final vote on the bill.

The vote is a major victory for the LGBTQ rights movement and signifies how far the Republican party, and the country as a whole, has moved on the issue of same-sex marriage in the last decade. A 2021 Gallup poll found that a record-breaking 70% of the U.S. population supports same-sex marriage, including 83% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In 2013, just 53% of the U.S. public and 30% of Republicans supported the issue. The bipartisan support for a bill protecting same-sex couples—thought unthinkable by many political strategists a decade ago—symbolizes the lasting success of the fight for marriage equality. After decades of fighting, it appears that for much of the American public, the issue has been settled.

Read more: How the Republican Party Has Evolved on Same-Sex Marriage

Baldwin, who in 2013 became the first openly queer politician elected to the U.S. Senate, tells TIME that she’s worked for years to make sure “people in the LGBTQ community can protect their families in the same way that opposite-sex couples can.”

“In the early days, that was fighting for things like domestic partnership laws and civil unions,” she continues. “I’ve been very gratified to know that there’s now a majority, hopefully it’s going to be a supermajority in the Senate, that wants to ensure that marriage equality endures.”

The legislation, titled the Respect for Marriage Act, repeals 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that legally defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The Respect for Marriage Act instead bans both the federal government and the states from refusing to recognize valid marriages on the basis of a couple’s “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”

The bill does not codify 2015’s Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodgeswhich overrode DOMA and established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage—and does not require a state to issue marriage licenses that are contrary to state law. Instead, it requires the federal government and all states to recognize a marriage between two people if it was legal in the state where it was performed.

“The federal government relies on the states to regulate marriage through state laws,” Baldwin says when asked why the bill does not codify Obergefell into law explicitly. With the Respect for Marriage Act in place, no state could disregard a same-sex marriage if it was legal under a different state law—which had not been the case prior to 2015.

In order to get at least 10 Republicans on board, the bipartisan coalition of Senators backing the bill added an amendment that would clarify that the law will not compel nonprofit religious organizations to provide services, accommodations, facilities, or goods for a celebration of a same-sex marriage. The amendment also confirms that existing religious liberty protections under the Constitution and federal law are unaffected by the measure, and states that the bill would not authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages, after some conservative advocates had argued it would. The amendment also states that the bill will not be used to deny or alter any benefit, including tax-exempt status, to an otherwise eligible person or entity.

Romney, who voted to advance the bill, told TIME that the amendment was “essential” for earning his vote, and added it provides “key religious liberty protections.” (On Tuesday night, officials in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that the church was supporting the Respect for Marriage Act. It was a notable shift by the church, of which Romney is a prominent member, given it supported efforts in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage in California.) Portman, who backed the bill and was the first sitting Republican Senator to support same-sex marriage in 2013, says he thinks the religious exemptions language helped sway other Republicans to support the bill as well.

The U.S. House of Representatives first passed a version of the bill in July, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. LGBTQ advocates raised alarm that Obergefell could be overturned next, after Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion in Dobbs suggesting he’d like to revisit it. The Respect for Marriage Act passed the House 267-157 on July 19, surprising some LGBTQ advocates by garnering the support of 47 Republicans, including members of leadership. After its bipartisan passage in the House, the measure’s Senate vote was initially planned for early fall, but was abruptly delayed in mid-September after Baldwin’s coalition asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for more time to secure needed GOP votes.

“There were concerns expressed among some of my Republican colleagues who want to be supportive of the Respect for Marriage Act, that having a vote too close to the midterms was viewed somehow as being too political,” Baldwin says. “I know from my own perspective, getting the job done and passing the Respect for Marriage Act is the important objective. No one was playing politics with this bill. So while I would have loved to see this bill advance earlier, I’m very pleased that it’s advancing this week.”

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