Why some Republicans supported the Respect for Marriage Act

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Why some Republicans broke from their party to support a same-sex marriage bill

The House of Representatives signed a bill protecting same-sex marriage on Thursday with nearly 40 Republicans voting in favor, a level of support that would have been all but imaginable a decade ago that shows how internal party divisions have grown on the issue.

The bill, the Respect for Marriage Act, would require states to recognize same-sex marriages and repeal 1996′s Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. President Joe Biden has said he plans to “promptly” sign it into law.

A minority of House Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, along with 12 Republican senators in late November. But the fact that the legislation received any Republican support shows how the politics of same-sex marriage have rapidly changed. Overall, a narrow majority of Republicans opposes same-sex marriage today — but that share is shrinking, as younger voters prove more tolerant of same-sex marriage and public attitudes change.

“We’ve tracked these attitudes for a long time. One thing that we have seen across the board and across demographic groups, there is a growing share of people are favoring same-sex marriage,” said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

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It might not be surprising then that most of the old language defending marriage between “a man and a woman” was absent from the debate over the Respect for Marriage Act. Republicans’ opposition instead focused on “religious liberty.”

Few argue marriage is between a “man and a woman”

While running for president in 2008, Barack Obama famously stated that marriage “is the union between a man and a woman.” (Prior to 2016, high-profile Republicans including George W. Bush and Mitt Romney repeatedly said the same.) Today, few politicians — and virtually no Democrats — are framing their views on same-sex marriage in those terms.

As Congress debated the Respect for Marriage Act, the “man and a woman” argument took a back burner to other arguments for and against the bill. Republican supporters argued the proposed legislation would protect religious liberty and, as Sen. Romney (R-Utah) said, show that “Congress — and I — esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally.”

Opponents argued the bill could infringe on religious liberty, which many legal scholars argue will not happen. They also made an unusual case against the legislation: that the Senate shouldn’t pass the bill because it’s simply not needed.

“I’m not aware of a single state in the United States threatening to pass any law infringing on the ability of same-sex couples to enjoy privileges associated with same-sex marriage,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on Nov. 29. “It’s just not happening.” Protecting religious institutions from potential persecution, Lee argued, is a bigger issue.

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The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade raised concerns that the court could revisit the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, which relies on similar legal logic, leading proponents of the Respect for Marriage Act to argue Congress should act to protect same-sex marriages before the court potentially revisits Obergefell. But the court hasn’t yet taken up cases that would challenge its past decision, leading Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to dub passing a same-sex marriage bill a “waste of time.”

One senator who did repeat on the Senate floor in November that the Bible requires marriage to be between a man and a woman — Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming — actually voted in favor of the legislation, arguing that the term “marriage” has a secular definition separate from its biblical definition.

Everyone, including Republicans, is slowly growing more tolerant of same-sex marriage

There has been a major shift in recent years in the way people view same-sex marriage, and it’s happened among all kinds of people.

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Since the early 2000s, both Democrats and Republicans have become more likely to say they support same-sex marriage. Just since 2015, the share of adults who say same-sex marriages should be recognized by the law rose from 60 percent to 70 percent in 2021, a record high, according to polling by Gallup.

This is also true among white Evangelical Protestants, who make up a major block of Republican voters and are known to turn out in primary elections to support candidates who share their views.

Twenty years ago, Pew’s Kiley said, roughly 1 in 10 white Evangelicals supported same-sex marriage. Today, that share has risen to about 1 in 4.

Debate increasingly focuses on trans rights — but views are complicated

Recently, hot-button debates over transgender rights have captured national attention as a wave of bills focused on transgender youth swept statehouses. When it comes to the emerging debate over transgender rights, people tend to have complicated — and sometimes contradictory — views.

Around 8 in 10 adults believe transgender people face discrimination, according to June 2022 Pew polling, and a majority of adults — and 48 percent of Republicans — favor laws protecting trans people from housing and employment discrimination.

But people also tend to believe that society does not need to do more to accept transgender people. Only 36 percent of adults said society hasn’t gone “far enough” toward accepting people who are transgender, and a strong majority of Republicans said society has gone “too far.” Even among those adults who said there is discrimination against transgender people, a majority said society has gone “too far” or been “about right” when it comes to protecting trans rights, Pew found, while a minority of those adults believed society hadn’t done enough.

These varied views are not surprising given how new the idea of transgender rights is to many Americans, said Kiley.


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“For many Americans, it’s a newer issue than same-sex marriage. That’s not me saying it’s actually new, but that the public debates and discussions that are happening around transgender issues certainly weren’t font and center for the public 15 years ago in the way they are today,” Kiley said.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Maggie Severns
    Maggie Severns

    Domestic Policy Reporter

    Maggie Severns is a policy reporter for Grid covering complex policy stories and major headlines.