A compromise & a blessing

by Steven Roberts

What’s more important? A political issue or a practical achievement?

All too often in today’s Washington, representatives reach for rhetoric that scores a point or wins the Twitter battle but does little to actually improve peoples’ lives. This week, however, pragmatism triumphed over partisanship. President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, a reasonable solution to a real problem that commanded major support from Republican lawmakers — 12 in the Senate and 39 in the House.

There are two lessons here: Washington can actually work when lawmakers from both parties bring a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill to the table. And the progress toward marriage equality in this country might be slow, but it is definitely steady.

This legislation reflects and recognizes a major change in social attitudes, the growing support for same-sex and interracial unions. In the latest Gallup poll, 71% favored gay marriage — including a majority of Republicans — up from 27% when the question was first asked in 1996.

The goal of the Respect for Marriage Act is simple: provide an insurance policy, a safety net for same-sex couples who feel threatened by the conservative majority on today’s Supreme Court. That court showed its activist bent in the Dobbs case last June, overturning almost 50 years of precedent by canceling the national right to abortion.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas sent shivers of fear through the LGBTQ community, suggesting that the legal reasoning cited in Dobbs could be used to reverse other precedents, including the Obergefell decision of 2015, which protects marriage equality nationally. The new bill says that even if the court were to overturn Obergefell, any valid marriage, performed in a state that sanctions same-sex unions, must be recognized by other states and the federal government.

The measure also makes a significant gesture toward religious conservatives, exempting nonprofit organizations from having to perform gay weddings or host celebrations if those events violate their beliefs.

The deal left activists on both sides unhappy, but that’s the nature of compromise — no one gets everything they want. Many conservative Christians opposed the measure entirely, arguing, “This bill only serves to further demonize biblical values,” as Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri put it.

Hartzler is wrong. Gay couples who want to marry don’t diminish the institution or “biblical values“; they strengthen both. But liberals also made mistakes. They complained that the bill failed to force all states to sanction same-sex unions, and they objected to any exemptions that recognize religious reservations. Demanding purity, however, would guarantee defeat.

The Democratic left is centered in highly secular and elitist institutions — universities, media outlets, high-tech companies — that don’t attract people of faith, or many people who don’t share their ideology. But if 7 out of 10 Americans support marriage equality, that means 3 of 10 do not, and a workable compromise with any chance of becoming law had to respect that minority view.

Moreover, the exemptions contained in the bill are minor, and don’t discriminate against or even inconvenience same-sex couples. Why would any of those couples want to be married in a venue that doesn’t want them, when there are countless churches, halls and houses that welcome them with open arms?

Then there is the issue of legislative strategy. Liberal militants wanted to press ahead early last fall in order to embarrass Republicans and force them to make unpopular votes before the election. But the bipartisan sponsors, led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly lesbian senator, placed success ahead of symbolism. By holding the vote after the election, they were able to maximize GOP support and ensure the measure’s passage.

Former Rep. Barney Frank, one of the first openly gay members of Congress and my hometown friend of more than 60 years, praised Baldwin’s shrewdness after the vote: “Tammy, through her own life experience, understood what troubles this caused for same-sex married couples all over the country. And she understood that resolving those fears was much more important than any political issue. And she stood up and she was proven right. And I hope people will now take this as an example of responsible legislating, not being panicked by people who have more emotion than intelligence on an issue.”

Responsible legislating. Now there’s a concept. And the result was not one more act of puerile political theater, but a holiday gift — a blessing, really — to same-sex couples everywhere. And the rest of us, who love them.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.