Landmark legislation protects LGBTQ and interracial marriage amid concerns over potential US Supreme Court rollback.
President Joe Biden has signed legislation that protects same-sex and interracial marriage in the United States, a move welcomed by rights advocates as an important step amid fears of a potential rollback and threats against marginalised communities.
Biden signed the landmark bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, into law during a ceremony on the White House lawn on Tuesday afternoon that drew thousands of supporters, including top Democratic legislators.
“Today is a good day. A day America takes a vital step towards equality, towards liberty and justice not just for some, but for everyone – everyone,” Biden said, thanking those who pushed for “equality and justice” in the US for years.
“This law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate in all its forms, and that’s why this law matters to every single American, no matter who you are and who you love,” he said.
The US House of Representatives passed the bipartisan legislation on December 8 after a successful vote in the US Senate at the end of November.
The law prevents states from denying “out-of-state marriages on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity or national origin” and it “repeals and replaces” existing federal law that defines marriage as being between individuals of the opposite sex.
Democratic and Republican legislators came together to pass the Respect for Marriage Act after the conservative-majority US Supreme Court overturned longstanding abortion rights in June, spurring fears over potential moves to curb same-sex and interracial marriage as well.
In a concurring opinion in the case that upended the landmark Roe v Wade abortion rights ruling, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested revisiting other decisions, including the legalisation of gay marriage.
A 2015 Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v Hodges, legalised same-sex unions nationwide, while a 1967 ruling in Loving v Virginia struck down laws in 16 US states barring interracial marriage.
“Congress is acting because an extreme Supreme Court has stripped away the right important to millions of Americans that existed for half a century,” Biden said on Tuesday, referring to the decision to overturn Roe.
‘Peace of mind’
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who herself made history as the first openly gay person to hold the post, touted the legislation as “historic” ahead of Tuesday’s signing ceremony.
The law “will give peace of mind to millions of LGBTQI+ and interracial couples who will finally be guaranteed the rights and protections to which they and their children are entitled”, she said on Monday.
Hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples have married since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalise such unions in the US. Public acceptance also has grown dramatically in recent decades, with polls now showing a strong majority of people supporting same-sex marriage.
Some conservatives and the religious right remain opposed, however.
Lawmakers crafted a compromise that was intended to assuage conservative concerns about religious liberty, such as ensuring churches could still refuse to perform gay marriages.
In addition, states will not be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But they will be required to recognise marriages conducted elsewhere in the country.
A majority of Republicans in Congress still voted against the legislation, but enough supported it to sidestep a filibuster in the Senate and ensure its passage.
“For millions of LGBTQ Americans, today is a historic day, a day of jubilation, and a day of relief,” US Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said during Tuesday’s ceremony, thanking fellow legislators for their efforts.
“By enacting this law we are sending a message to LGBTQ Americans everywhere: You, too, deserve dignity. You, too, deserve equality,” Schumer said.
The legislation was passed amid rising fears over violence involving LGBTQ communities across the US, as well as Black people and other minority groups – and growing calls for authorities to tackle incitement by far-right groups.
Earlier this month, a man was charged with hate crimes after he went on a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Colorado, killing five.
“We are living in a time where there is this rising threat of violence from extreme far-right groups across the spectrum of marginalised communities,” Laurel Powell, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based LGBTQ+ advocacy group, recently told Al Jazeera.
It also comes as several US states have pushed anti-transgender legislation.
“The message must be loud and clear – LGBTQ+ people are entitled to the same dignity, rights and protections as all Americans,” Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ elders, said in a statement on Tuesday welcoming the new law.
“And we must all keep working until that goal is fully realized,” Adams said.