The right for same-sex couples to marry is one step closer to being enshrined into federal law after a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators passed the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday.
The Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate by a vote of 61-36. Utah’s GOP senators split their vote on Tuesday, with Sen. Mitt Romney voting in favor of the bill and Sen. Mike Lee against. The bill returns back to the U.S. House so a religious exemption amendment, which was added by the Senate, can be voted on during the final weeks of Congress’ lame-duck session.
The bipartisan support in the Senate came after lawmakers added an amendment to the House bill to provide exclusions for religious organizations, meaning those groups, “shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage,” according to the amendment.
After adding the amendment, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered its support for passing the bill, though it added that its doctrine on “marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged.”
Three other amendments, including one by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, were rejected by the Senate on Tuesday. Sponsors of the other two amendments — Sens. James Lankford, R-OK, and Marco Rubio, R-FL — also voted against the bill.
Earlier this month the bill passed a procedural hurdle that signaled the bill was on its way to passage. On Nov. 16, a bipartisan majority that included 12 Republicans — including Romney — and all 50 Democrats voted 62-37 to begin debate on the bill. The Senate attempted to vote to pass the bill the next day, but later opted to vote on the bill after Thanksgiving.
Romney said he would vote in favor of the bill because it, “provides important protections for religious liberty—measures which are particularly important to protect the religious freedoms of our faith-based institutions.”
“This legislation provides certainty to many LGBTQ Americans, and it signals that Congress — and I — esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally,” he said in the statement.
Lee has been one of the bill’s most vocal opponents in the Senate, and has repeatedly argued that the bill’s exemption for religious groups has not gone far enough, calling the protections, “severely anemic.” Instead, he says religious liberties would be ensured if an additional amendment, which Lee drafted, would be included in the existing bill.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Lee took the Senate floor — as he had done twice on Nov. 17 in opposition to the current bill — and argued once more that the bill did not adequately protect faith groups and that senators should back his amendment.
The current religious exemption states that groups would not be required to provide services, goods or accommodations for same-sex couples. It also says refusal to provide such services, “shall not create any civil claim or cause of action,” according to the bill.
In an opinion piece published by Fox News on Monday morning, Lee alleged the current bill would threaten the tax-exempt status of religious groups, and adding his amendment should be a “no-brainer.”
“My simple, common-sense amendment would prohibit the federal government from retaliating against any person or group for adhering to sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions about marriage,” Lee wrote.
Lee’s amendment would have added language to the act that sought to prevent the federal government from revoking the tax-exempt status of religious organizations.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-IL, said Tuesday on the Senate Floor that Lee’s amendment was unnecessary, arguing Utah’s senior senator “ignores the robust protections for religious liberty already in the Respect for Marriage Act.”
Durbin, citing the amendment’s language, said nothing in the act, “shall be construed to diminish or abrogate a religious liberty or conscience protection otherwise available to an individual or organization under the Constitution of the United States or Federal law.”
Lee’s amendment, which needed 60 votes, was struck down in a 48-49 vote prior to the bill’s passage.
With its passage, the Respect for Marriage Act will head back to the House, where it will need to pass with the new Senate amendment before it can head to President Joe Biden’s desk.
After the vote, Lee posted a statement on Twitter saying the passage was a “discouraging development in our country’s storied history of protecting the free exercise of religion.”
“While I’m disappointed that my amendment was not included, I remain committed to preserving the religious liberties enshrined in our Constitution for all Americans,” Lee said in a statement.
The U.S. House passed the previous version of the bill by a vote of 267-157, with 47 Republicans joining all House Democrats in favor of the bill. Utah’s all-Republican House delegation — Reps. Blake Moore, Chris Stewart, John Curtis and Burgess Owens — voted in favor of that version.
“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 earlier this month.
The effort to codify same-sex marriage began in June after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, overturning the right to an abortion and spurring supporters of same-sex marriage to seek legislative protections.