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Our view: Congress's new marriage equality bill

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If there’s any evidence to back the proposition that the GOP represents anything like a big-tent party, it’s the issue of same-sex marriage. When Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that led to the national legalization of same-sex marriage, was being tried in 2015, several prominent Republican legislators broke with their party’s historic opposition to speak up on behalf of gay people — some of whom were family members — and agree with then-Vice President Dick Cheney — whose lesser-known daughter is gay — and who said: “I think freedom means freedom for everybody and you ought to have the right to make whatever choice you want to make with respect to your own personal situation.”

Their support wasn’t uniform, of course. Many remain opposed to this day to what has been the law of the land for more than a decade, with no definable detrimental effect.

Yet even a Supreme Court decision hasn’t proved eternally authoritative, as we learned following the court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade earlier this year. Justice Clarence Thomas may have erred then by speaking the quiet part out loud: that the court “should reconsider” Obergefell v. Hodges. That set off some alarms.

Many Republican legislators denied that any of this represented a new threat to same-sex couples, waving their hands and saying, “Nothing to see here.” Just as they did when they denied the likelihood of federal legislation to limit abortion, which some Republicans are now preparing to push through next year.

And so it is that the Respect for Marriage Act, designed to protect same-sex and interracial marriage, is now moving its way through Congress. It passed the House in July with 47 Republicans joining all Democrats. Last week, our senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, joined 22 other reasonable and amenable Republicans — and 50 Democrats — who voted in favor of moving the bill forward.

But even after another House vote and President Biden’s signature, expected after Thanksgiving, we remain skeptical that the matter will be settled.

While we have no doubt about the sincerity of the bill’s Republican supporters, and the necessity for “religious liberty” exceptions to be included to protect the privileges of religious groups that fear being forced to treat gay people equitably, the bill doesn’t codify a federal right to same-sex marriage; it only requires states to respect same-sex marriages performed when same-sex marriage was legal. In the wrong hands, the bill could be used, and likely will be used, to argue that individual states should be allowed to opt out of performing same-sex marriages — or recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Despite the wide public acceptance of same-sex marriage — regularly polled at 70% or higher — discrimination against gay people is still part and parcel of conservative Christian dogma. Some religious groups have not yet abandoned their attempts to enforce their strict rules on Americans who have already rejected those rules and they’re not likely to anytime soon.

Some may be surprised that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is among the religious groups supporting this legislation — especially after spending millions of dollars to oppose Obergefell v. Hodges. Their support hasn’t changed their own doctrine; no same-sex marriages will be performed in their temples.

But the Mormons, themselves historic targets of discrimination — religious and otherwise — may have absorbed a deeper lesson: that their own religious freedom is interwoven in their support for other people’s religious freedom.

Another way to put it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it comes to Americans’ ability to make decisions about their own lives, it’s a lesson many never learned.

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