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Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that would repeal the overwhelmingly bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and codify the U.S. Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges into federal law.
Forty-seven House Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic caucus in voting for the bill, leading to speculation that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) might be able to find enough Republican votes to pass the legislation. Although a handful of Republican senators have gone on record in opposition to the bill, a few have indicated support, while the majority have remained noncommittal.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is an example of a Republican who is considering voting for the bill. Despite criticizing the Obergefell decision in 2015, Ernst recently told reporters that she was “keeping a very open mind” about codifying same-sex marriage into federal law. She indicated she may support the bill because she has a “good number of very close friends that are same-sex married.”
Ernst’s remarks reflect what is increasingly becoming the view of a portion of Republican lawmakers. Although the most recent version of the Republican Party platform condemns the Obergefell and United States v. Windsor decisions and states that “marriage between one man and one woman is the foundation for a free society,” formerly stalwart defenders of natural marriage seem to feel less strongly than they once did.
No one likes to be told they are on the “wrong side of history,” and no one likes being called “hateful.” Furthermore, the desire to affirm the dignity of our friends who identify as LGBT is rooted in the biblically consistent conviction that everyone has inherent value and ought to be treated with decency and respect. To affirm the dignity of our LGBT friends and avoid being vilified, should Republicans move on from social issues perceived as divisive, such as the definition of marriage?
Like any public policy proposal, it is appropriate to consider the merits of the legislation pending before the U.S. Senate. And there are several compelling reasons why the Respect for Marriage Act is problematic and senators should oppose it.
- Rights of Children
History shows that marriage has long been seen as a matter of public concern. This is because male-female sexual relationships alone have the capacity to bring new life into the world, and children are highly dependent and require care and attention to develop physically, morally, and intellectually. Societies have rightly believed (and social science proves) that a married man and woman are best suited to care for and raise their children. This reality has prompted the state — which has an interest in children maturing into responsible citizens — to concern itself with marriage.
Regrettably, the link between a strong marriage culture and a stable society has been downplayed in the United States in recent years as gratifying adult sexual desires has superseded the welfare of children as a societal goal. This shift toward favoring the perceived needs of adults in marriage policy was observed by Justice Samuel Alito in his Obergefell dissent. According to Alito, redefining marriage requires accepting the premise that “the fundamental purpose of marriage is to promote the well-being of those who choose to marry.” This view of marriage prioritizes “emotional fulfillment” and “happiness” for adults and, as Alito notes, ignores the fact that for millennia “marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate.”
Elevating adult happiness over the needs of children is a relatively new development in how society thinks about marriage. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, written in 1989, states that “as far as possible” children have “the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Even ancient societies indifferent to the morality of same-sex behavior recognized this truth and understood that men and women bring different gifts to parenting and that children benefit from being raised by their mother and father.
This is why the state’s primary interest in marriage has always centered on children and why marriage law has historically reflected the biological reality that every child has a mother and father and the moral reality that children have a right to a relationship with both parents. Enshrining same-sex marriage into federal law will further erode the understanding that biological parents are essential to the development of children.
- Religious Freedom Repercussions
A second concern with the Respect for Marriage Act relates to religious freedom. Before Obergefell, examples of coercion and hostility against those with sincerely held religious or moral beliefs about marriage were numerous and growing. The stories of Barronelle Stutzman (a florist in Washington state), Kelvin Cochran (a fire chief in Atlanta), and Jack Phillips (a baker in Colorado) already illustrated the challenges facing those with convictions about marriage.
In his Obergefell dissent, Alito presciently observed that the court’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage would be used “to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” Alito suggested that those who disagree with same-sex marriage “will risk being labeled bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.”
Unfortunately, the intervening years have validated Alito’s misgivings. In addition to dozens of wedding vendors (such as bakers, florists, and photographers), businesses, religious universities, adoption agencies, and churches have now faced censure, threats, and lawsuits over their sincerely held beliefs on marriage and human sexuality. Specifically, nondiscrimination and public accommodation laws and policies have been weaponized by local, state, and even the federal government to stigmatize, intimidate, and coerce those who believe in a biblical definition of marriage.
These examples, and others like them, should weigh heavily on Republican senators thinking about voting for the Respect for Marriage Act. The Supreme Court has already imposed same-sex marriage on the nation. Because the probability Obergefell being reversed is slim in the near future, this legislation’s most likely effect will be providing yet another weapon for LGBT activists to use against people of faith. This should give every senator pause as they review this bill.
- States’ Rights
Another problematic aspect of the Respect for Marriage Act: It would require every state to recognize as valid a marriage solemnized in another state. This requirement of complete reciprocity means that if California lowers the age of consent or if Vermont legalizes polygamy or “throuple” marriage, other states would be required to recognize these as valid marriages. Thus, by codifying the Obergefell decision that overruled 50 million Americans who voted in over 30 states to codify natural marriage into state law, the Respect for Marriage Act would run roughshod over the basic principles of federalism.
- The Bedrock of a Thriving Society
Conservatives believe that values, ideals, and institutions that lead to human flourishing should be preserved — and that includes marriage, the pre-political institution undergirding civilization. Apart from the shifting political winds, nothing has changed in the last seven years. Marriage is still the bedrock of a thriving society. Deep down, Republican senators know this, which is why they shouldn’t cave under progressive peer pressure.
For the sake of children, religious liberty, federalism, and the truth about marriage, senators should reject codifying Obergefell into federal law and oppose the misleadingly named Respect for Marriage Act.
Reporting from The Daily Signal.