The House vote last week to approve legislation to mandate the recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages across the United States was notable in several ways with large implications nationally and for New York.
For one, the measure’s success reflected a stunning cultural and political shift on the issue of same-sex marriage over the past 20 years.
The legislation was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
By contrast, the 259-169 House vote for the Respect for Marriage Act was bipartisan with 39 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting the legislation.
The 39 Republicans included five from New York, including Long Island Rep. Andrew Garbarino, whose district covers parts of Nassau and Suffolk, and Rep. Elise Stefanik, the chair of the Republican conference and strong supporter of former President Donald Trump.
The 39 House Republicans joined 12 Republican senators who approved the legislation a month ago.
President Biden who signed the legislation into law on Tuesday had earlier called Congress’ support “a critical step to ensure that Americans have the right to marry the person they love.”
Congress’ vote comes at a time when an ultra-conservative Supreme Court majority is actively removing the rights of people approved by previous courts – regardless of precedent.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin and the first openly lesbian official elected to Congress, had sponsored the legislation after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his opinion in the June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to abortion, that the court also “should reconsider” precedents enshrining marriage equality and access to contraception.
The legislation appeared at the time as an effort by Democrats to highlight social issues during the midterm elections.
But an unexpectedly large number of House Republicans announced their support for the legislation.
The vote also showed how changes in attitudes among the public can drive public policy.
Over the past 20 years, same-sex marriage has become widely accepted with polls showing that more than 70% of voters support same-sex marriage.
Baldwin’s proposed legislation was supported by a bipartisan group of “proponents in the Senate — boosted quietly by a coalition of influential Republican donors and operatives, some of them gay — to find the at least 10 Republican votes necessary in that chamber to move it forward,” according to The New York Times.
We would like to think that the public’s overwhelming support for gun safety will also translate into further action on issues like universal background checks and preventing sales of all firearms to people reported as dangerous to law enforcement by a mental health provider.
The same-sex marriage legislation also showed the large cultural differences in this country with most House Republicans condemning the legislation as immoral.
“This bill only serves to further demonize biblical values,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Republican of Missouri, said. “This is yet another step toward the Democrats’ goal of dismantling the traditional family, silencing voices of faith and permanently undoing our country’s God-woven foundation.”
We couldn’t disagree more with Hartzler, but her comments do serve to illustrate the basis of movements that can be seen in recent years on Long Island.
This includes opposition to books, primarily on LGBTQ subjects, by a slate of candidates to the Great Neck Library Board of Trustees. That slate was recently defeated by candidates who opposed censorship in the library and defended the right of librarians to choose what books to offer the public.
It also includes efforts by well-funded conservative groups to challenge what is being taught in public schools about subjects like slavery, Jim Crow and even the Constitution
For the record, the word God is never used in the U.S. Constitution. Religion is mentioned in the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Nowhere is the Bible cited as a basis for laws.
Instead, the Constitution vests the power in “We the People.”
In the case of the Respect for Marriage Act, people’s rights are expanded by legalizing marriage between people of the same sex. It does not ban marriage between a man and a woman.
Still, these types of conflicts can be expected to become more frequent as a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturns decades of precedent in decisions like Roe v. Wade.
That most recently applied to New York’s century-old law strictly restricting the concealed carrying of firearms.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority also seemed inclined during oral arguments last week to rule in favor of a graphic artist who is an evangelical Christian and does not want to create wedding websites for same-sex couples
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted this would mark “the first time in the court’s history” that it permitted a commercial business open to the public to “refuse to serve a customer based on race, sex, religion or sexual orientation.”
Sotomayor and the other liberal justices noted that there is no obvious principle limiting when religious convictions could allow exemption from anti-discrimination laws.
The current makeup of the Supreme Court means that laws that have protected individual rights for many years could be overturned and that it will be up to Congress, state Legislatures and even school and library boards to defend them.
The vote for the Respect for Marriage Act shows that this is possible, but only if members of the public make their voices heard at every level of government.