Biden Signs the Respect for Marriage Act, Protecting Marriage Rights for All
By: Colleen Cave
On the morning of December 13th, President Joe Biden, in front of 5,300 people who had gathered to watch, signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law. This Act was passed with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate last week, and finally erases the Defense of Marriage Act. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 and defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and allowed states to ban same-sex marriage under state law. This new law rules in the complete opposite direction, protecting the right to marry across the country regardless of sex, race, or ethnicity. This recent law was also amended from its previous draft to include interracial marriage.
Marriage Equality wasn’t always a main goal of LGBTQ+ activists; they instead focused on legalizing homosexuality and outlawing discrimination. The real push for same-sex marriage began in the late 1980s, following the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (“ HIV”) is a disease that attacks a person’s immune system, making it harder to fight off infections. At the beginning of the outbreak and for many years thereafter, HIV would become Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (“AIDS”) which was a death sentence, especially for the gay community. Due to the stigma surrounding homosexuality, and the lack of sex education and health care for queer people, HIV disproportionately affected the gay community, particularly gay men. By 1980, over 120 thousand deaths due to AIDS had been reported. This tragedy highlighted the lack of protections for same-sex couples.
Many people were unable to visit their partner in the hospital because they weren’t related or married. Unaccepting families wouldn’t share information about the infected person with their partner and would prevent them from seeing each other at all. The partner would also have no say in funeral preparations, no claim to personal effects, and due to discrimination, could be neglected when carrying out the will even if they had been written into it. After their partner’s death, many people were evicted from the apartment they previously shared because either their late partner owned it, or renters didn’t want someone who had close contact to HIV living in their building. Marriage equality is so important because of the lack of these basic legal protections unmarried life partners experienced. Marriage is more than a ceremony of commitment; it’s an important legal right that protects the union between two people.
The legalization of same-sex and interracial marriage as a law (instead of a court case) is a very significant part of the new act. Previously, interracial and same-sex marriage had only been protected by the Supreme Court cases Loving V. Virginia (1967) and Obergefell V. Hodges (2015) respectively. The protections afforded by these cases were not substantial enough to adequately protect the rights of marriage for every American citizen, because cases are always open to be reinterpreted and overturned.
A recent example of this is the overturning of Roe V. Wade, a Supreme Court case which protects a person’s right to an abortion under the 14th amendment’s “right to privacy.” This past June, the Supreme court ruled to overturn Roe, setting off the enactment of anti-abortion laws in over 30 states. Unlike laws, court rulings are only under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, so court decisions are not reviewed by other government branches, and only five out of nine votes are needed to overturn a case. Because federal laws supersede supreme case laws, the new Respect for Marriage Act will ensure the protection of equal marriage across all 50 states, and in order to amend or overturn the law, it would have to go through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Institution of Marriage is more than just a public declaration of love, it is also a legal contract that binds two people together and gives them protection under the law. Marriage is tied into health insurance, buying a home, adoption, taxes, and inheritance. Past attempts to protect marriage for every American citizen, such as Loving and Obergefell, were not concrete or extensive enough to be effective. The latest law will ensure anyone of any race, sex, or ethnicity can marry whomever they want, and it will make it very difficult for this right to be revoked.