New law mandates federal, state recognition of marriage, including same-sex unions

Congress has given final approval to a bill that provides federal and state recognition of same-sex “marriages.”

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 258–169 for the Respect for Marriage Act Thursday (Dec. 8), 10 days after the Senate approved the same legislation. President Biden is expected to sign the bill soon.

The new law repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” and did not require states to recognize same-sex unions.

Same-sex unions are legal under the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, decision, a landmark ruling that legalized gay “marriage” across the nation. The Respect for Marriage Act comes amid concerns the Supreme Court might revisit and reverse that decision.

Should that happen, the Respect for Marriage Act would require federal and state recognition of any marriage considered legal in the jurisdiction where it took place. This includes gay “marriages” as well as interracial marriages. The legislation clarifies the RMA does not “require or authorize” federal recognition of polygamous marriages (marriages between more than two people).

Passed with amendments

The House initially passed the Respect for Marriage Act in July, when 47 GOP members joined all Democrats in a 267-157 vote. Eight fewer Republicans joined the Democrats in support of the bill Thursday.

Senate revisions to the original text required a House vote on the amended bill. The Senate passed the bill Nov. 29 by a 61–36 margin.

All six of Alabama’s Republican representatives voted against the bill’s passage, as did both of the state’s U.S. senators.

The measure has drawn the ire of both progressive and conservative activists.

For their part, progressive activists expressed disappointment the bill did not require states to permit same-sex “marriages.

Religious freedom concerns

On the other side, religious liberty advocates are concerned about wording in the bill that authorizes a private individual, as well as the U.S. attorney general, to “bring a civil action” in federal court against a person who violates the measure.

Of special concern are wedding vendors who do not want to provide their services for same-sex ceremonies. The Supreme Court on Dec. 5 heard arguments in a Colorado case involving a website designer who is challenging a Colorado civil rights statute by choosing not to create sites for same-sex weddings. A similar case out of Colorado dealt with a cake baker’s refusal to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

The Respect for Marriage Act mimics the Colorado state law at the federal level and provides a “cause of action” that didn’t previously exist, said Eric Johnston, president and general counsel of the Southeast Law Institute, an organization that advises individuals and organizations on religious freedom concerns. Johnston told The Alabama Baptist he fears the law will lead to more lawsuits by those claiming discrimination when organizations and individuals refuse to participate in such unions based on their biblical values.

Though the text of the bill says nonprofit organizations, including churches, and their employees will not be required to provide services “for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage,” Johnston fears interpretation of the phrase “whose principal purpose is the study, practice, or advancement of religion” will be open to interpretation and might not adequately protect those who oppose gay “marriage” based on their beliefs.

Those who oppose a biblical view of marriage “will be looking for lawsuits to bring,” Johnston said.

Ryan Bangert, senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Alliance Defending Freedom, said the Respect for Marriage Act “deceptively gives lip service to religious liberty.”

Hannah Daniel, policy manager for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed similar thoughts following the House vote.

“This result is a disappointing end to months of dedicated work against the Respect for Marriage Act,” she told Baptist Press. “Though we had sincerely hoped that this vote would fail, we will move forward with continued fervor in our work to protect religious liberty and to see our neighbors flourish.

“As Southern Baptists, we will continue to live out the gospel to a confused and watching world in need of hope and clarity.”

Definition of marriage

U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, a Republican from Hoover who voted against the measure, said despite its passage, the new law does not change the definition of marriage.

“Marriage between a man and a woman is one of the self-evident truths that pre-exist the concept and institution of culture and government. Marriage is the fundamental building block of all cultures and civilizations. It is essential for family formation and for the bearing and raising of children. Attempts to redefine marriage through the deceptively titled ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ will not change what marriage is by nature nor its importance to the future well-being of our nation,” he said in a statement.

Some supporters of the bill have taken a similar position, noting that what constitutes a biblical marriage, a covenant before God to cherish one another and continue to grow as one, remains unchanged by civil union protections offered by the state.

Three states — Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana — offer “covenant marriage” as a legally distinct kind of marriage. Though not explicitly religious, these rarely used laws require marrying spouses agree to obtain pre-marital counseling, sign a statement declaring “a covenant marriage is for life” and accept more limited grounds for later seeking divorce.

Under Obergefell, covenant marriages can be contracted by either opposite- or same-sex couples.

Marriage in Alabama

In Alabama, the process for entering into a legal marriage does not require a license ahead of time, nor does it require any form of ceremony, civil or religious.

Couples wishing to marry are required to complete and download a form. The form must be signed by the two individuals entering the marriage and notarized. The notarized form must be filed with a local probate court within 30 days of the second signature.

Officially, the date the form is notarized is the legal marriage date of the couple. If the two individuals sign the form on different dates, the latter date is considered the legal date of marriage.


EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATE — President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law Dec. 13. Reporting by Carrie Brown McWhorter of The Alabama Baptist with additional reporting by Tom Strode of Baptist Press.