Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the so-called “Respect for Marriage Act” — legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, which defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman) and require federal recognition for same-sex marriage nationwide. The vote was 267-157, with 47 Republicans joining the Democrats in support of the bill. It now heads to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is considering whether or not to schedule a vote.
But even if the bill’s future is unclear, the House’s fast-tracking of the bill is emblematic of the astonishing speed at which the moral revolution continues to move concerning same-sex marriage. The history of the Defense of Marriage Act — which was superseded in 2013 and 2015 by the U.S. Supreme Court and is at the heart of the legislation the House passed Tuesday — is just the latest example of how quickly America’s politicians and the public at large have shifted on marriage.
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In 1996, Congress passed DOMA with overwhelming bipartisan majorities (342-67 in the House, 85-14 in the Senate). Very liberal senators like Joe Biden, Patrick Leahy, and Harry Reid voted for DOMA along with current House leaders Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Then-House members Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin (the top two Democrats in the Senate today) also voted for DOMA. Although these lawmakers reversed their public position in the mid-2010s, their votes in 1996 show that it wasn’t that long ago when both parties believed that marriage was the union of one man and one woman. Only one Republican in Congress voted against DOMA.
Fast forward to this week, when the House voted to officially repeal DOMA. Although DOMA’s definition of marriage was struck down in 2013 in the Windsor decision, and its provision that allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions was invalidated in 2015 by Obergefell (the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide), DOMA is still technically on the books.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) surprised lawmakers earlier this week by announcing a vote on the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, which was introduced on Monday. Pelosi and Democratic leaders said the bill was necessary because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case. Specifically, congressional Democrats pointed to Justice Clearance Thomas’s concurrence in which the justice argued that the court’s substantive due process precedents, including Obergefell, should be reconsidered. Democrats have since seized on this comment, despite Justice Samuel Alito explicitly stating in the Dobbs majority opinion that “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”
For social conservatives, Tuesday’s vote reveals two important realities. First, many politicians, including some Republicans, believe that the marriage debate is settled and would like nothing more than to have this issue go away. This was reflected by the House vote and much of the rhetoric on the Republican side of the aisle that showed a reluctance to address the issue directly. Although several Republican members decried the bill on the House floor, the strongest comments were directed toward Democrats for using the vote as an election-year charade. Republicans faulted Democrats for wading into culture war issues instead of dealing with inflation, high gas prices, a troubled border, and other perceived failures associated with the Biden administration. And while an argument can certainly be made that Democrats are indeed seeking ways to deflect attention away from disastrous economic policies, the lack of a robust defense for marriage itself was noticeable.
Second, Tuesday’s vote reflects the reality that many Americans have also moved on from the marriage debate. Just a few years ago, it would have been unimaginable that 47 Republican House members would vote to overrule millions of voters who had defined marriage between one man and one woman in their states. Imposing an errant Supreme Court decision on all 50 states would have been simply unthinkable. After all, the current Republican Party platform says that marriage between a man and a woman is the “foundation for a free society,” condemns the Windsor decision for removing Congress’ ability to define marriage policy, and describes the Obergefell decision as a “lawless ruling.”
But the fact that 47 Republican lawmakers bucked the official party position and voted to repeal DOMA shows they do not believe there will be a political price to pay. If they thought voters would punish them, most would have voted differently. Political cowardice notwithstanding, the latest polls suggest that the political assessment of the public’s changing views on marriage is likely correct, fueled in part by a growing segment of Christians in the electorate who no longer accept the Bible’s teaching on the topic. This point was illustrated in 2020 by George Barna, who showed that 34 percent of evangelicals now reject the definition of marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Bible is clear in its teaching on marriage. Instituted by God in the Garden of Eden, natural marriage is the covenantal relationship between a man and a woman that is intended to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church (Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:22-33). The Bible teaches that marriage is permanent and exclusive, and that sexual differentiation is part of God’s plan for marriage. God did not create androgynous beings; He created two complementary, biologically, and genetically sexed individuals. In other words, God built the complementarity of the sexes into the very fabric of creation. The creation of male and female is not accidental or incidental but central to God’s design of human beings created in His image. In Genesis 1, the mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” is given to both the man and the woman; neither could fulfill this charge alone.
Christians have believed and taught these truths for millennia, and it is just as true today as it ever has been that marriage is the context for strong families, thriving communities, and stable civilizations.
The cultural winds have shifted dramatically in many Western countries, including the United States. Tuesday, 47 Republicans capitulated to these trends and voted against natural marriage, society’s most important, pre-political institution.
Hopefully, Republican senators will show more courage and wisdom than many of their House colleagues if and when it is their turn to vote on marriage.