Congress has secured enough bipartisan support to pass a marriage equality bill when it returns after Thanksgiving, marking a significant shift on same-sex marriage since the Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act with an overwhelming majority in 1996. 

Citing concerns that the Supreme Court could overturn its 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage, Democrats introduced the Respect for Marriage Act to shore up legal protections for interracial couples as well as same-sex couples, which now account for 1 million households. It passed the House in July and cleared a key hurdle this week in the Senate, thanks to the addition of religious liberty language.

Why We Wrote This

After clearing a key hurdle, the Senate is poised to pass protections for same-sex marriages. How a compromise after months of negotiating led to bipartisanship on a culture war issue.

“We were careful to ensure that in shoring up some rights, we did not infringe on others,” said Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is bisexual and helped negotiate the bipartisan amendment.

Indeed, that is a central principle – and challenge – of American democracy. Proponents of the Senate compromise, including 12 Republicans, say it gives all couples certainty, dignity, and respect without compelling faith-based nonprofits to act contrary to sincerely held religious beliefs. Critics disagree.

In a lengthy floor speech, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said it only paid “lip service” to protecting religious liberty.

Reflecting a marked GOP shift on same-sex marriage in recent years, Congress has secured enough bipartisan support to pass a marriage equality bill when it returns after Thanksgiving.

Democrats put forward the Respect for Marriage Act to shore up legal protections for same-sex and interracial couples, citing concerns that the Supreme Court could overturn key precedents that support such marriages, as it did with abortion this summer. The bill passed the House in July with 47 GOP lawmakers voting in favor. And it cleared a key hurdle this week in the Senate, thanks to a bipartisan amendment with religious liberties protections that won the support of a dozen Republicans

“When we reach beyond partisan talking points, we expand what’s possible,” said Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is bisexual and helped to negotiate the amendment. “We were careful to ensure that in shoring up some rights, we did not infringe on others.” 

Why We Wrote This

After clearing a key hurdle, the Senate is poised to pass protections for same-sex marriages. How a compromise after months of negotiating led to bipartisanship on a culture war issue.

Indeed, a central principle – and challenge – of American democracy is how to protect the rights of one group without stepping on the rights of another. Proponents of the Senate compromise say it strikes the right balance, giving all couples certainty, dignity, and respect without compelling faith-based nonprofits to act contrary to sincerely held religious beliefs. Some proponents say the Senate compromise renders it less meaningful, while critics are concerned the amendment doesn’t go far enough in protecting religious liberty.

“The bill pays lip service to protecting religious liberty but does not even begin to address the most serious, egregious, and likely threats to religious liberty presented by this bill,” said GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah in a floor speech.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, shown Nov. 8, 2022, in Salt Lake City, has said that provisions protecting religious liberty in the Respect for Marriage Act do not go far enough. Twelve other Republicans this week helped set the bipartisan legislation on a glide path to becoming law.

Dramatic shift in 25 years

Such criticism notwithstanding, the GOP support marks a significant shift on same-sex marriage since the Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in 1996. More than 30 Democrats – including then-Sen. Joe Biden – joined all Republicans in recognizing marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman for the purposes of determining federal benefits. The Supreme Court deemed that provision unconstitutional in 2013, but the Respect for Marriage Act would formally repeal and replace it.

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