The Respect for Marriage Act: A Step to Guaranteeing Same-Sex Marriage


Art Credits to Susan Liu ’24!

Jade Lee '24

“My fellow Americans, that all-consuming, life-altering love and commitment—that’s marriage. Thank you to everyone on the hard-fought victory generations in the making. It’s been a long road, but we got it done,” said President Biden. After which he officially signed the Respect for Marriage Act [1].

On December 13th, 2022, thousands of people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House, eagerly waiting for the bill to be signed [2]. There were performers such as Sam Smith and Cyndi Laupi, Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the house (as of January 2023), and the owner of Club Q, Matthew Haynes, as well as survivors of the shooting that happened in it a few months ago. Many of the people in that crowd believed that the passage of the bill serves as a sign of tremendous success in the gay rights movement [3]. 

Some of you readers may wonder: What exactly is the Respect for Marriage Act? Why is the respective signing so significant to some? And most importantly, what does it mean for the greater American Public?? 

To comprehend the magnanimity of the Respect for Marriage Act , it’s important to discuss exactly what Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that played a bigger role in the making and passing of the act. 

Obergefell v. Hodges was a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case which ruled that by the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, states banning same-sex marriage and refusing to recognize same-sex marriage done in other states is unconstitutional [4]. This along with United States v. Windsor, would strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had specifically defined a married union as “a man and a woman”, and most importantly, allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriages done in other states [5].

To many, at the time, this decision seemed like it would guarantee the recognition of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Little did they know what the future Supreme Court would look like.

But it’s also important to consider how much the court has changed since 2015. The Supreme Court has a conservative majority now, as opposed to how it was eight years ago. And this conservative court hasn’t exactly been idle either.  The overturning of Roe v. Wade from the summer prior indicates that the right to abortion is no longer federally insured, bringing waves of concern that other “liberal” decisions would meet the same fate. It really doesn’t help that Justice Clarence Thomas himself wrote that the court should “reconsider” such decisions. 

However, in comes the Respect for Marriage Act, commonly shortened as “RFMA”. It explicitly forces states to recognize any marriage that was done legally in whatever state it happened in [6]. This means that all married couples are entitled to the same marital benefits and rights, such as government benefits, employment benefits, and inheritance rights [7].

It also means that if Obergefell v. Hodges was overturned, all married couples would be able to enjoy the same rights. 

However, this act unfortunately doesn’t make same-sex marriage rights mandatory for all states. There were also certain compromises made to get some Republican support, such as providing “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage” would not be required of non-profit religious organizations.. 

To end on a more positive note though, this doesn’t mean that the future is bleak for the gay rights movement. Support for LGBTQ rights has considerably increased in the past decades.  In fact, in 2004, a poll distributed by the Pew Research Center found that 60% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, as opposed to the 61% that support it in 2022. This shift in public support will most likely be reflected in upcoming legislation as well [6]. 

Much like how President Biden ended his speech on December 13th, 2022, “We’re going to continue the work ahead, I promise you”, there will be further work needed to ensure permanent and equal change, but accomplishing that isn’t too far off either.