Mitt Romney joins bipartisan Senate majority to advance same-sex marriage act with religious exception amendment

The LDS Church said it supported the Respect for Marriage Act after it was amended to include exclusions for religious organizations.

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is surrounded by reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Romney voted to advance a bill in the U.S. Senate, that if passed, would codify same-sex marriage nationwide.

The U.S. Senate took a crucial step Wednesday afternoon to advance a bill that would codify same-sex marriage nationwide.

A bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate — with 12 Republicans, including Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney, joining all 50 Democrats — voted 62-37 to begin debate on the Respect for Marriage Act, signaling the legislation is likely headed for approval in the chamber later this week.

Utah’s senators were split on the Wednesday vote, with Romney voting to advance the bill and Sen. Mike Lee voting against it. In July, all four of Utah’s representatives to the U.S. House voted to pass the bill. The Senate bill now includes protections for religious institutions, meaning the House will need to vote again on the legislation.

In a statement Wednesday, Romney hailed the efforts of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, Susan Collins, R-ME, and others who sponsored the bill.

“This legislation provides important protections for religious liberty—measures which are particularly important to protect the religious freedoms of our faith-based institutions,” Romney said. “This legislation provides certainty to many LGBTQ Americans, and it signals that Congress — and I — esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally.”

The Senate’s latest version includes an amendment that grants some exemptions to religious groups. According to the Senate amendment, religious organizations “shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

The amendment is likely a reason why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement Tuesday in support of the bill, while adding that its doctrine on “marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged.”

“We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,” the church said in a news release.

[Read: In a stunning move, LDS Church comes out for bill that recognizes same-sex marriage]

Despite the religious exemption in the amendment, not everyone was convinced the protections will do enough.

Ahead of the vote on Tuesday evening, Lee tweeted from his personal “Based Mike Lee” Twitter account that religious protections were “severely anemic,” and that he would vote for the bill if it included an amendment to prohibit religious groups from losing tax-exempt status over beliefs on same-sex marriage, though he argued the bill’s sponsors, “adamantly refused even to consider that.”

In a statement Wednesday, Lee explained after he voted against moving the bill forward that the legislation “does not simply codify Obergefell as its proponents claim.”

“Religious Americans will be subject to potentially ruinous litigation, while the tax-exempt status of certain charitable organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits will be threatened. My amendment would have shored up these vulnerabilities. It is a shame it wasn’t included,” he added.

The Respect for Marriage Act would also repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. In the years since, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled parts of the bill are unconstitutional.

All four of Utah’s U.S. House members — Reps. Blake Moore, Chris Stewart, John Curtis and Burgess Owens — were among the 47 Republicans who voted to pass the bill in July. After the vote this summer, Curtis released a statement saying, “I do not believe the federal government should infringe upon an individual’s decision about who they wish to marry.”

“I proudly voted in July to codify these all-important protections, and I look forward to once again voting in favor of this bill,” Stewart told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

Utah first allowed same-sex marriage in 2013, when a federal court ruled Utah’s ban was unconstitutional and was ended immediately. The decision led to hundreds of people rushing to their county clerk’s office for a marriage license. However, a month later the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay on the ruling, which stopped new marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jim Obergefell talks about efforts to codify same-sex marriage in Utah law, as Sen. Derek Kitchen listens at the Capitol, on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

The Supreme Court later ended the stay in October 2014, resuming same-sex marriages in Utah. In 2015, the nation’s high court decided in the case Obergefel v. Hodges that same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade this summer, overturning the right to an abortion, supporters of same-sex marriage began their effort to codify same-sex marriage into federal law, rather than relying on Supreme Court precedent.

That ruling also led Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen, the only openly queer Utah legislator, to make a push to protect same-sex marriage in Utah. If the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefel, same-sex marriage in Utah would again be illegal, as the state still has a statute and constitutional amendment on the books that ban those marriages.

Kitchen hosted Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage case, during the event.

“We need to protect the right to marry at the state level because we don’t know what will happen at the federal level from the Supreme Court,” Obergefell said during the Utah Capitol news conference. “We deserve to be treated equally. We deserve to be part of ‘We the people.’”