Modest victories: Respect for Marriage Act

Hailie Goldthorpe, Staff Writer

Will Embree

The Respect for Marriage Act, also referenced as RFMA (H.R. 8404), is a bill in the United States Congress to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which limits the definition of marriage to one man and one woman. In essence, this bipartisan act requires the U.S. federal government to recognize same-sex and interracial marriage validity, regardless of state law. This historic compromise reinforces LGBTQ+ and BIPOC marriage rights in the United States, but I want to address a few sore spots.

Namely, the bill explicitly protects the tax-exempt status under its religious freedoms amendment, so nonprofit religious organizations — including churches, faith-based social agencies and religiously-affiliated institutions such as some universities — would not be required to “provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

Further, any such refusal “shall not create any civil claim or cause of action.” This protection may have been a victory worth pursuing for the twelve Republican Senators voting in favor of this act. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the lead Senate Republican sponsor of the bill, gave a statement. She writes, “The amendment clarifies that the bill could not be used to deny or alter the tax-exempt status — or any other status, tax treatment, grant, contract, agreement, guarantee, educational funding, loan, scholarship, license, certification, accreditation, benefit, right, claim or defense not arising from a marriage — for any otherwise eligible person or entity.”

The Defense of Marriage Act legally withheld federal benefits from married same-sex couples. DOMA had broad bipartisan approval. In fact, prominent Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden voted in favor of the bill. However, in 2013, a portion of DOMA was found unconstitutional. 

State-level bans on same-sex marriages remain on the books in many states. However, they are rendered inoperative under the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. Therefore, if you want to make a comparison, the Respect for Marriage Act is an extra layer of security to protect same-sex marriage if challenged. It does not prohibit states from taking steps to ban, suppress or restrict new same-sex marriages if Obergefell is overturned. However, the Respect for Marriage Act is far from a cure-all. 

Despite its pitfalls, the Respect for Marriage Act is a modest victory for each of us. Codifying the right to marry despite gender or race is a step toward societal progress and acceptance of LGBTQ+, racial and intersectional identities on a national scale. Further, it has opened a refreshing dialogue about the role of partisan politics in determining for whom civil rights are historically guaranteed, delayed and denied.

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