Sunday, November 27, 2022

Senators reach deal on changes to marriage equality bill, teeing up first vote this week

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Washington — A bipartisan group of senators announced Monday that they reached agreement on revised legislation that would enshrine marriage equality into federal law and provide protections for religious liberties, assuaging concerns from some Republican members who feared that the measure could infringe on religious freedom while paving the way for the Senate to take up the bill this week. 

A joint statement from the group of five senators involved in the negotiations announced that they have crafted “commonsense language to confirm that this legislation fully respects and protects Americans’ religious liberties and diverse beliefs, while leaving intact the core mission of the legislation to protect marriage equality.”

The Senate negotiators are 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. They expressed confidence that the amendment to the legislation, the Respect for Marriage Act, “has helped earn the broad, bipartisan support needed to pass our commonsense legislation into law.”

Shortly after the senators announced their agreement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer filed a motion to set up a procedural vote to advance the bill, expected for Wednesday.

“No American should ever, ever be discriminated against because of who they love, and passing this bill would secure much-needed safeguards into federal law,” Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor.

The New York Democrat called the bill “important and much needed,” and said its passage is “not a theoretical exercise, but it’s as real as it gets.”

“I hope for the sake of 10s of millions of Americans, that at least 10 Republicans will vote with us to protect marriage equality into law soon,” he said. “The rights and dignity of millions of Americans depend on it.”

The bipartisan amendment unveiled Monday ensures nonprofit religious organizations will not be required to provide services, facilities or goods for the celebration of a same-sex marriage, and protects religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution and federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also makes clear the bill does not authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriage and safeguards any benefit or status — such as tax-exemptions, grants, contracts or educational funding — of an entity so long as it does not arise from a marriage. 

Finally, the amendment “recognizes the importance of marriage, acknowledges that diverse beliefs and the people who hold them are due respect, and affirms that couples, including same-sex and interracial couples, deserve the dignity, stability and ongoing protection of marriage,” according to the bipartisan group.

The Respect for Marriage Act was one of Congress’ first legislative responses to the Supreme Court’s June decision ending the constitutional right to an abortion. A concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas left lawmakers worried that other Supreme Court decisions protecting the right to same-sex marriage could come under threat from the conservative court.

The bill repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and safeguards interracial marriages by requiring that valid marriages are recognized regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

The measure easily passed the Democratic-controlled House in July with backing from 47 Republicans, and several GOP senators expressed support for the plan, raising its prospects of clearing the 60-vote threshold needed to advance legislation in the Senate.

But some Republicans warned the House bill could infringe on religious liberty, prompting the bipartisan group of senators to begin working to find common ground on an amendment to satisfy those concerns.

In hopes of garnering more support for the bill with religious liberty protections and clearing the way for its approval by the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed in September to postpone a vote until after the midterm elections, which were last week.

If the Senate passes the marriage equality bill with the amendment, the House will have to take up the legislation once again.

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