US Congress passes same-sex and interracial marriage legislation

Bill formulated over Supreme Court concerns heads to President Joe Biden's desk for final signature

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces the final passage of the bill with protections for same-sex marriages on the House Floor. AP
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The US House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that federally recognises same-sex and interracial marriages, a measure borne out of concern that the Supreme Court could reverse support for legal recognition of such relationships.

The House vote was 258-169, with all of the chamber's Democrats and 39 Republicans voting in favour — though 169 Republicans voted against it and one voted “present”.

The measure now goes to Democratic President Joe Biden's desk for signature into law.

The Respect for Marriage Act, as it is called, won Senate approval in a 61-36 vote last month. Twelve Republicans joined 49 Democrats in supporting it.

It is narrowly written to act as a limited backstop for the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalised same-sex marriage nationwide, known as Obergefell v Hodges.

The bill would allow the federal government and states to recognise same-sex and interracial marriages as long as they were legal in the states where they were performed.

In addition, it makes concessions for religious groups and institutions that do not support such marriages.

The measure would repeal a 1996 US law called the Defence of Marriage Act, which among other things denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. It bars states from rejecting the validity of out-of-state marriages on the basis of sex, race or ethnicity.

The Supreme Court in 1967 declared prohibitions on interracial marriage unconstitutional.

But the legislation would not bar states from blocking same-sex or interracial marriages if the Supreme Court allowed them to do so.

It also ensures that religious entities would not be forced to provide goods or services for any marriage and protects them from being denied tax-exempt status or other benefits for declining to recognise same-sex marriages.

In a speech on the House floor before the vote, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the “hateful movement” behind attacks on LGBTQ rights in the US.

The legislation “will help prevent right-wing extremists from upending the lives of loving couples, traumatising kids across the country and turning back the clock on hard-won prizes”, Ms Pelosi said.

The legislation was written by a group of Democratic and Republican senators in response to fears that the Supreme Court, with its increasingly assertive conservative majority, could someday strike down the Obergefell ruling, potentially jeopardising same-sex marriage nationwide.

The court has shown a willingness to reverse its own precedents, as it did in June when it overturned its landmark 1973 ruling that had legalised abortion nationwide.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority on Monday appeared ready to rule that a Christian web designer has a right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages in a case the liberal justices said could empower certain businesses to discriminate based on constitutional free speech protections.

About 568,000 married same-sex couples live in the US, according to the US Census Bureau.

Updated: December 08, 2022, 5:23 PM