Senate Passes ‘Disrespect for Marriage’ Act without Religious Liberty Protections
On Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate passed the so-called “Respect for Marriage” Act which critics say invites “predatory lawsuits” against people of faith, stigmatizes biblical values, and drives Christians from the public square. Although nearly all Senate Republicans voted for amendments demanding greater respect for religious liberty, 12 Republicans voted for the unamended bill — and against the interests of their own voters, according to pro-family organizations.
H.R. 8404, which skeptics call the “Disrespect for Marriage” Act, requires all 50 states to recognize any marriage legally recognized by any other state and gives individuals the right to sue if they feel they have been harmed by people who believe in natural marriage. After the Senate rejected a series of religious liberty amendments, a dozen Republicans sided with Senate Democrats in the 61-36 vote for final passage. Two of its supporters, Senators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), had served as co-chairs of the congressional Values Action Team, “dedicated to advancing pro-life and pro-family policies.”
“These 12 senators are literally putting a target on their base and driving them out of political engagement,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins shortly after the vote. “This bill is a club, with which the Left will attempt to beat people of orthodox faith — who believe in marriage as God designed it and history has defined — into submission.”
“My experience as a former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has shown me that religious freedom’s greatest threat is not a military force that eradicates or suppresses religious freedom,” Perkins added. It comes from “policies like the so-called Respect for Marriage Act,” which lead to the “systematic suppression and eventual loss” of religious liberty.
The Senate had the opportunity to fix provisions of the bill that would infringe on the rights of people who hold biblical values but rejected each amendment in succession.
Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) put forward a comprehensive religious liberty amendment protecting religious believers from vindictive federal officials who might take “discriminatory action … wholly or partially on the basis of their belief in marriage.” Lee’s amendment failed by one vote, 48-49. His amendment received bipartisan support, with Democrat Joe Manchin (W.Va.) voting yes. But one Republican, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), voted against Lee’s amendment; two Republican senators, Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), skipped the vote, as did Democrat Raphael Warnock (Ga.).
“This is a discouraging development in our country’s storied history of protecting the free exercise of religion,” said Senator Lee after the narrow vote. “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.”
Travis Weber, vice president for Policy and Government Affairs at Family Research Council, gave a grave assessment of the outlook for religious freedom in America on “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” as the votes unfolded Thursday. "It’s going to set in motion a series of events that will aim towards the marginalization of Christians from society because of their beliefs about marriage,” he said. “These are the contested issues of today, and Christians cannot do anything but stand on them. And yet we’re seeing Republicans side with Democrats in marginalizing these believers. This is a sad moment, but we must do everything we can to call attention to what’s happening and light the way forward.”
Senator James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) amendment would have clarified portions of the bill’s language. As written, the Respect for Marriage Act “just says if someone feels they’ve been harmed” by another individual’s views of marriage, “they would now have the opportunity to be able to sue someone else because of that. ... It’s fairly obvious” trial lawyers and LGBT activists will file “countless numbers of lawsuits, testing every new definition” codified in the bill. “I encourage everyone in this body to ask a very simple question of themselves: Is today about respecting the rights of all, or is it about silencing some and respecting others?” Senator Lankford asked.
Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) amendment would have struck LGBT activists’ ability to sue believers. Both amendments failed by the same 45-52 margin. Republican Senators Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Rob Portman (Ohio) sided with the Democrats against religious freedom.
“Members of Congress who voted for this bill and claim to support religious liberty are either naïve or don’t understand the laws they are passing,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Roger Severino. “As a result, the tax-exempt status of religious schools and nonprofits is now up for debate.” Others said the vote held disturbing implications about the state of the Senate. “What does it say about our Congress & our country if including religious liberty protections in a bill that would otherwise force Americans to act against their religious convictions proves to be an unacceptable addition to the (Dis)respect for Marriage Act?” asked Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center.
LGBTQ political victories had not been under threat prior to the bill’s introduction. Democrats pounced on the issue this summer after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas encouraged his fellow justices to reconsider Obergefell v. Hodges, the controversial 2015 opinion that first discovered a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. After the bill’s passage, CNN admitted, “This is all academic right now.”
“This dangerously cynical and completely unnecessary bill is a direct attack on the First Amendment. It does nothing to change the legal status of same-sex marriage anywhere. But it undermines religious freedom everywhere and exposes Americans throughout the country to predatory lawsuits by activists seeking to use the threat of litigation to silence debate and exclude people of faith from the public square,” said Ryan Bangert of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “If the Senate truly cared about protecting religious freedom, it would have included comprehensive amendments proposed by Sens. Lee, Rubio, and Lankford.”
In place of these amendments, the Senate adopted a legally ambiguous bipartisan amendment that religious liberty advocates called “dangerous,” “deceptive,” and “harmful.”
Pro-family conservatives say Republicans lost a major vote on religious liberty, in part, because the broader conservative movement provided little coverage of the issue. Christianity Today, now edited by former ERLC leader Russell Moore, ran only one article on the topic — supporting the bill. “While conservatives were chasing the shiny ball of #trans extremism, #LGBTQ activists worked with #UsefulIdiot Republicans (& churches, eg #LDS) to pass a law enshrining the radical concept of homosexual ‘marriage’ in federal law,” tweeted Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth, adding this is how the “LGBTQ lobby advances.”
LGBT activists did not greet the bill’s passage with gratitude, indicating passage only emboldened them to demand more restrictive legislation. “If the Senate really wanted to take a big step to protect LGBTQ Americans and our families, it would finally pass the Equality Act,” which actively repeals religious liberty protections, wrote Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post.
But Democrats celebrated a political victory — fueled, in part, by Republican votes. “I just called my daughter and her wife — who are expecting a baby next spring — to let them know that this Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act! What a great day!” enthused Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer critically agreed to delay a vote on the bill, which he says the majority of Americans support, until after the midterm elections to spare liberal Republicans electoral backlash.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) praised the dozen Republicans who voted for the final bill, because “the attempts to derail this piece of legislation were probably more focused and robust than any other bills I’ve worked on in the last two years.”
“Republicans privately estimate perhaps 30 or so of their senators want the bill to pass, conservative backlash limited the whip count,” reported Politico. Republican Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said GOP support sent the message “that this is not about an extreme liberal, progressive end that would destroy religious freedom in this country. This was about settling something that is on the minds of millions of people and their families.”
The bill returns to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives for a vote on final passage. A harsher version of the bill passed the House on July 19 with 47 Republican votes, although some Republicans who initially voted for it now say they have seen the error of their ways.
President Joe Biden has already committed to sign the bill. “Love is love,” tweeted Biden, just days after his 80th birthday. “I look forward to the House passing this legislation and sending it to my desk, where I will proudly sign it into law.”
Politically active people of faith promise passing a bill redefining marriage without meaningful conscience protections will come at a cost to supporters in both parties. “Those in Congress who dismissed legitimate warnings about this bill and the harms that would be caused by it must be held accountable. This bill was designed from the start as a political weapon for left-wing activist groups to harass and shut down conscientious Americans who hold fast to the time-honored institution of marriage,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.
Most importantly, pro-family advocates say changing legal definitions cannot alter the fundamental truths embedded in marriage and family life by another Lawgiver. “We know what is right. We know what is true. Whether by the Court or by the Congress, truth cannot be altered,” Perkins concluded. “We need to have the courage to stand for it, remembering the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6, ‘and having done all ... stand firm.’”
The 12 Republican Senators who voted for final passage of the “Respect for Marriage” Act are:
- Roy Blunt (Mo.);
- Richard Burr (N.C.);
- Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.);
- Susan Collins (Maine);
- Joni Ernst (Iowa);
- Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.);
- Lisa Murkowski (Alaska);
- Rob Portman (Ohio);
- Mitt Romney (Utah);
- Dan Sullivan (Alaska);
- Thom Tillis (N.C.); and
- Todd Young (Ind.)
The 47 House Republicans who voted for the “Respect for Marriage” Act in July are:
- Kelly Armstrong (N.D.);
- Don Bacon (Neb.);
- Cliff Bentz (Ore.);
- Ken Calvert (Calif.);
- Kat Cammack (Fla.);
- Mike Carey (Ohio);
- Liz Cheney (Wyo.);
- John Curtis (Utah);
- Rodney Davis (Ill.);
- Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.);
- Tom Emmer (Minn.);
- Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.);
- Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.);
- Mike Garcia (Calif.);
- Carlos Gimenez (Fla.);
- Tony Gonzales (Texas);
- Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio);
- Ashley Hinson (Iowa);
- Darrell Issa (Calif.);
- Chris Jacobs (N.Y.);
- David Joyce (Ohio);
- John Katko (N.Y.);
- Adam Kinzinger (Ill.);
- Nancy Mace (S.C.);
- Nicole Malliotakis (N.Y.);
- Brian Mast (Fla.);
- Peter Meijer (Mich.);
- Dan Meuser (Pa.);
- Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa);
- Blake Moore (Utah);
- Dan Newhouse (Wash.);
- Jay Obernolte (Calif.);
- Burgess Owens (Utah);
- Scott Perry (Pa.);
- Tom Rice (S.C.);
- Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.);
- Mike Simpson (Idaho);
- Elise Stefanik (N.Y.);
- Bryan Steil (Wis.);
- Chris Stewart (Utah);
- Mike Turner (Ohio);
- Fred Upton (Mich.);
- David Valadao (Calif.);
- Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.);
- Ann Wagner (Mo.);
- Michael Waltz (Fla.); and
- Lee Zeldin (N.Y.)
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.