The House gave final approval to legislation protecting same-sex marriages on Thursday, a watershed moment in a decades-long battle for national recognition of such unions that reflects a stunning shift in societal attitudes.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill, which requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages, as soon as possible, providing relief to hundreds of thousands of couples who have married since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing such marriages nationwide.
The bill, which passed 258-169 with nearly 40 Republican votes, would also protect interracial marriages by requiring states to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.” After months of negotiations, the Senate passed the bill with 12 Republican votes last week.
Several gay members of Congress spoke out ahead of the vote about what it would mean for them and their families. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, stated that he is planning to marry “the love of my life” next year and that it is “unthinkable” that his marriage will not be recognized in some states.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said he and his husband should be able to visit each other in the hospital and receive spousal benefits “regardless of whether your spouse’s name is Samuel or Samantha.”
Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, stated that marriage equality was once a “far-fetched idea,” but that it is now “the law of the land and supported by the vast majority of Americans.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the federal right to abortion, Democrats moved the bill quickly through the House and Senate. That decision included a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas, who suggested that same-sex marriage be reconsidered as well.
Since July, when 47 Republicans voted for it — a strong and unexpected show of support that sparked serious negotiations in the Senate — the legislation has lost some Republican support. However, the majority of those lawmakers stood firm.
“To me, this is really just standing with the Constitution,” Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, who voted in favor both times, said. She rebutted Republican claims that it would jeopardize the religious rights of those who oppose same-sex marriage.
“There are no religious people. “Liberties are harmed in any way, shape, or form,” Wagner explained.
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presided over the vote as one of her final acts as House Speaker before stepping down in January. She stated that the bill “will ensure that the federal government will never again stand in the way of you marrying the person you love.”
The bill would not require states to allow same-sex marriages, as the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision now does. However, if the Obergefell decision is overturned, states would be required to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed, and current same-sex unions would be protected.
While it is not everything that advocates had hoped for, the legislation’s passage represents a watershed moment. Only a decade ago, many Republicans openly campaigned against same-sex marriages; today, more than two-thirds of Americans support them.
Despite this, the majority of Republicans opposed the legislation, and some conservative advocacy groups lobbied hard against it in recent weeks, claiming that it does not go far enough to protect those who wish to refuse services to same-sex couples.
“God’s perfect design is marriage between one man and one woman for life,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va, said ahead of the vote. “And regardless of what you or I think, that’s what the Bible says.”
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., sobbed as she pleaded with her colleagues to oppose the bill, which she claims undermines “natural marriage” between a man and a woman.
“I’ll tell you what my priorities are,” Hartzler stated. “Protect religious liberty, believers, and Americans who believe in the true meaning of marriage.”
Democrats in the Senate, led by Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, attempted to address GOP concerns by negotiating an amendment that clarifies that the legislation does not affect the rights of private individuals or businesses that are already protected by law. The amended bill would also make it clear that a marriage is between two people, in an attempt to dispel some far-right criticism that the legislation would sanction polygamy.
Several religious organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eventually came out in support of the bill. The Mormon church stated that it would support same-sex marriage rights as long as they did not interfere with religious groups’ freedom to practice their faith.
The vote on Thursday came amid a string of violent attacks on the LGBTQ community, including a shooting earlier this month at a gay nightclub in Colorado that killed five people and injured at least 17.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Kelley Robinson, the Human Rights Campaign’s incoming president. However, Robinson claims that the votes demonstrate “in such a significant way” that the country values LBGTQ people.
“We are part of the full story of what it means to be an American,” said Robinson, who was in the Senate chamber with her wife and young son for last week’s vote. “It speaks volumes about them validating our love.”
For many senators, the vote was also personal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was wearing the tie he wore to his daughter’s wedding to another woman on the day the bill passed their chamber. That day was “one of the happiest moments of my life,” he said.
Baldwin, the first openly gay senator who has worked on gay rights issues for nearly four decades, sobbed as the final vote began. She thanked the same-sex and interracial couples for making the moment possible.
“You changed the hearts and minds of those around you by living as your true selves,” she wrote.