Gay Marriage

Biden Signs Respect for Marriage Act Into Law

Federal recognition of same-sex marriage is now officially on the books and no longer dependent on the Supreme Court.


This afternoon, President Joe Biden formally signed H.R. 8404, the Respect for Marriage Act, into law.

In a White House ceremony on the South Lawn, Biden was joined by several hundred LGBT activists and supporters and preceded by speeches from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) and House Speaker (for a few more weeks) Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and musical performances from the likes of Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper. The president took note of the historic moment.

"Deciding whether to marry and who to marry is one of the most profound decisions a person can make," Biden said, repeating some of the same sentiments that garnered media attention back in 2012 when he broke from President Barack Obama as vice president in support of recognition. "Marriage is a simple proposition: Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? It should not be more complicated than that. Everybody should have the right to make that decision for themselves, without government interference."

The Respect for Marriage Act definitively writes into law federal legal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages. They are the law of the land as it stands, but concerns that a future Supreme Court might undo recent precedents that mandate recognition led to the negotiated development of this act, which passed the House earlier in the year and the Senate in November.

In a nutshell, the Respect for Marriage Act declares that the federal government will recognize a marriage between two people that was performed in a state where that union is legal, regardless of the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of the participants. It does not require that states legally recognize same-sex marriage on their own. (Some states have bans that could potentially become active again should the Supreme Court's precedents be overturned). It does, however, require states to recognize legal marriage contracts from other states.

The Respect for Marriage Act also specifies that religious organizations, churches, temples, mosques, and the like cannot be forced to provide services or accommodations for the solemnization of any marriage. And it also promises that the bill does not require or authorize polygamous marriage.

What the bill does not do is address any of the current conflicts over whether private businesspeople like bakers or florists (among others) can be forced to serve same-sex couples despite any religious objections to same-sex marriage. And it doesn't address any conflicts over whether religious-based organizations could be required to serve or employ people who are in a same-sex marriage. It was a point of criticism of the bill from religious conservatives, but as I noted before, there currently is no political compromise tenable in that area that would be embraced by enough Republicans or Democrats to pass. Instead, a bill that affirms the poll-supported status quo was enough to draw in enough Republican support to avoid a Senate filibuster and pass.

And so, even if the Supreme Court revisits and decides to strike down its precedent in Obergefell v. Hodges (and to be clear, there's no pending case on the docket that would), same-sex marriage will still have federal recognition. And ultimately, this is the right way to do it. Lawmakers coming together and passing legislation supported by a majority of Americans is preferable to hoping for a group of Supreme Court justices to decide what the rules of marriage are and should be.