Biden signs Respect for Marriage Act into law at star-studded ceremony

TheGrio was on the ground at the White House South Lawn as President Joe Biden made history by signing the first law enshrining rights for gay, lesbian and interracial couples.

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President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act at a star-studded ceremony on the South Lawn. The signing of the law is a victory for the LGBTQ+ community as it further protects the right to marriage for same-sex and interracial couples.

U.S. President Joe Biden reacts after signing the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House on December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Respect for Marriage Act will codify same-sex and interracial marriages. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Respect for Marriage Act would, for the first time, enshrine same-sex and interracial marriages into federal law and allow the federal government to bring a civil lawsuit against anyone who violates the statutory rights of gay, lesbian or interracial couples. The bill also notably repeals the 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which once defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Before President Biden signed the bill into law, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others, delivered remarks about the historic law. Entertainers Sam Smith, who is openly gay, and Cyndi Lauper, a longtime LGBTQ+ advocate, also performed musical selections before the estimated crowd of 5,300 assembled on the South Lawn.

TheGrio also spotted celebrity sightings: Jason Lee of Hollywood Unlocked, former NBA star Jason Collins, the first openly gay American to play in a major league and CNN’s Don Lemon, who was joined by fiancé Tim Malone.

President Biden received thunderous applause from the mostly LGBTQ+ attendees as he spoke about his first public support for same-sex marriage 10 years ago. The then-vice president made headlines in 2012 when, during an interview on “Meet the Press,” he expressed his support for gays and lesbians marrying.

Biden had gotten ahead of President Barack Obama, who at the time had not yet affirmed his support for same-sex marriage. Days later, during an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, President Obama declared, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Reflecting on that moment on Tuesday, President Biden joked, “I got in trouble.”

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Vice President Joe Biden react after a heckler is removed from a reception for LGBT Pride Month in the East Room of the White House June 24, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“This law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate and all its forms. And that’s why this law matters to every single American, no matter who you are, or who you love,” said the president.

Biden’s signing of the law came with bipartisan support in Congress — a rarity on Capitol Hill in recent years. Senate Republicans worked with Democrats to pass the legislation amid political worry that marriage equality could be overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion this past summer.

In his concurring opinion in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that previous rulings granting federal protections for same-sex marriage and intimacy under the 14th Amendment should also be reconsidered. Thomas’ judicial forewarning was enough to jolt the bipartisan effort to protect the right to marry for millions of same-gender couples through the Respect for Marriage Act.

Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised the signing of the law. “This bill leaves the harmful legacy of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) behind and sends the message to LGBTQ and interracial couples everywhere that their marriages will be protected,” Wiley said in a statement.

“Everyone should have the right to be with the person they love, and we look forward to President Biden signing this landmark legislation into law, and making it clear to the Supreme Court where this country stands on marriage equality.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks before signing the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Respect for Marriage Act will codify same-sex and interracial marriages. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Wiley said that the Respect for Marriage Act becoming law is personal to her, as she is the product of an interracial marriage, and her daughter is a lesbian. “My parents, a Black man and white woman, got married in 1961 before Loving v. Virginia, the landmark SCOTUS case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage,” she explained. “My daughter is a lesbian — and yes, she deserves to live and love and marry like I can.”

However, the statutory authority granted by the RMA doesn’t exactly make same-sex marriage the law of the land, as U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones previously noted in an interview with theGrio. Despite the great achievement of the Respect for Marriage Act, “it does not go far enough,” he said.

“This legislation says the federal government must recognize a marriage that was legally performed within a state. It does not require all states to allow marriage equality,” explains Jones.

Therefore, if the conservative-majority Supreme Court votes to overturn marriage equality, as Justice Thomas has indicated he would do, the federal government — much like in the case of abortion after the court overturned Roe v. Wade — would be powerless to stop states from repealing marital rights for gay and lesbian couples. Currently, same-sex marriage has a federal right, which was granted after the Supreme Court’s affirmative ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ organization in the country, noted in an interview with theGrio that despite potential action from the “extremist” Supreme Court, the Respect for Marriage Act still issues a “full repudiation” of the Defense of Marriage Act, which she says was “discriminatory and unconstitutional when it was signed into law.”

Demonstrators in favor of LGBT rights rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C, October 8, 2019, as the Court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The law also ensures that every legally married person will get access to the full range of federal benefits. “That’s everything from being able to see your partner in the hospital when they’re sick to being safe and secure in retirement, to the benefits to build a family that you want,” noted Robinson.

She added, “It ensures that if you are legally married in a state … [and] you move to another state … [your] marriage remains valid.”

In his remarks at the signing ceremony, President Biden acknowledged that there’s still more to be done to protect LGBTQ+ Americans. He called on the need for Congress to also pass the Equality Act, which would enshrine federal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There’s so much more work to be done to ensure that we’re eliminating discrimination that’s legalized in our laws across the country,” said Robinson of HRC. “So the [Respect for Marriage Act] is a really important step, but it definitely doesn’t finish our fight toward freedom and equality.”

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