It's Official: Same-Sex and Interracial Marriage Are Now Protected Under Federal Law

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, President Joe Biden signed the Respect For Marriage Act into law as part of an effort to protect same-sex marriage, one of the rights potentially at risk in light of the overturn of Roe v. Wade. The law mandates federal recognition for same-sex marriages by prohibiting states from "denying the validity of out-of-state marriages based on sex, race, or ethnicity," according to the New York Times.

"My fellow Americans, the road to this moment has been long," President Biden said during the signing ceremony, "but those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up."

The new law is particularly significant in light of the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, which ended the constitutional right to abortion in June. Fear of a ripple effect has loomed over the country ever since. With Roe overturned, many people have worried that other cases decided based on Roe's precedent would be at risk of reversal, too. In fact, in his concurring opinion, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas named Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges (which ruled in favor of birth-control access, same-sex sexual activity, and same-sex marriage, respectively) as cases that could potentially be revisited.

In an effort to maintain the legalization of same-sex marriage, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Respect For Marriage Act into Congress. On July 19, the bill passed in the House of Representatives, then on Nov. 29, it was passed in the Senate. From there, it was sent back to the House for final approval, which it received on Dec. 8, with lawmakers from both parties voting in its favor. The final step was for President Biden to officially sign it into law, which he did on Dec. 13.

When the landmark legislation was introduced months ago, it was widely considered unlikely to become law. But the act received bipartisan support, helping secure its passage. "Today, we will vote for equality and against discrimination by finally overturning the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act and guaranteeing crucial protections for same-sex and interracial marriages," Rep. David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said moments before it passed the House on Dec. 8, per The New York Times.

What exactly does the Respect For Marriage Act protect? The bill was crafted to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ and interracial couples. For example, if the Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that originally legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, a state would be able to ban same-sex marriage. But under the Respect For Marriage Act, individual states are required to acknowledge another state's legal marriage. POPSUGAR spoke with Ashley M. Silberfeld, a partner in the matrimonial and family law practice at Blank Rome LLP, about what this means for LGBTQ+ couples.

What Is the Respect For Marriage Act?

The Respect For Marriage Act provides protection for same-sex and interracial marriages, according to the official Congress website. Specifically, the law "repeals and replaces provisions that define, for purposes of federal law, marriage as between a man and a woman and spouse as a person of the opposite sex with provisions that recognize any marriage that is valid under state law." Basically, the law expands the definition of marriage so it's no longer tied to sex or gender and also protects the right to marry regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin.

The Respect For Marriage Act was put forth as a reaction to the Court's ruling on Dobbs (which overturned Roe) because the justification SCOTUS used to rule against the right to abortion in this case could also be used to reverse the precedents set by Griswold, Lawrence, Obergefell, and Loving v. Virginia (a 1967 case that ruled state laws barring interracial marriages were unconstitutional). So even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that state laws barring same-sex marriages were unconstitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges, the court's decision in the Dobbs case means SCOTUS could use that rule to overturn Obergefell in the future. The goal of this act is to protect the right to marriage for same-sex and interracial couples in the event that Obergefell or Loving is overturned next.

What Would the Protection Mean For LGBTQ+ Couples?

The passage of the Respect For Marriage Act means that marriages of LGBTQ+ couples are legal and constitutionally protected regardless of which state they live in. Previously, same-sex marriage was legal nationwide because of the Obergefell v. Hodges case. In that ruling, the Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, making it legal in all 50 states and requiring states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses.

However, many states have anti-LGTBQ+ marriage laws that have been lurking under the surface of the current federal court ruling. If Obergefell is overturned, state governments with those laws can refuse to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples and exclude future couples from marriage — that is, until the Respect For Marriage Act was passed.

"The Respect For Marriage Act is groundbreaking in that it's affirmatively breaking away from the more 'traditional' construct of marriage," Silberfeld says. "It also creates rights for the Department of Justice to bring charges against violations of the law, as well as private rights to sue for such violations. Having such rights included, in my opinion, shows the legislators' intentions — that they are really serious about protecting the rights of marriage for all individuals, period."

How Does Codifying a Bill Protect Same-Sex Marriage?

The passage of the Respect For Marriage Act codifies same-sex marriage. Codifying a bill means it becomes a federal law that must be implemented and followed and for which people can be prosecuted if they violate it.

While the law is definitely a step in the right direction to protect all marriages, Silberfeld says, there's still a possibility that it could be overturned by the Supreme Court in the future. "Our system is one of checks and balances," she explains, "so while the legislators can make a law, the Supreme Court has the ultimate power to review whether that law withstands constitutional muster." Theoretically, SCOTUS could overturn any codified law that legislators pass if they deem it "unconstitutional."

How Can LGBTQ+ Couples Protect Their Marital Status?

"I would encourage these couples and all of us to get involved in supporting this kind of legislation in the days, months, and years ahead," Silberfeld says. That means, for example, voting and letting your representatives know which issues are important to you as a constituent. If Dobbs has taught us anything, it's that even long-established rights are subject to upheaval. With the Respect For Marriage Act officially a law, it's more important than ever to continue showing active support for same-sex and interracial marriage protections.

— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan