What the same-sex marriage vote means for Catholics

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With Congress now poised to enshrine same-sex marriage into federal law — largely thanks to Senate Republicans — opponents of the measure warn that Catholics and other people of faith should brace for incoming attacks on their faith. 

The Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and did not force states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The Democrat-led RFMA goes further than the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage — Obergefell v. Hodges — by mandating that all states must recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state. 

The bill also elevates married same-sex couples to receive Medicare and Social Security benefits. 

The Senate’s passage of RFMA — successful due to the support of 12 Republican senators — has provoked widespread outcry from religious groups and conservatives, with some calling it the “Roe v. Wade” of marriage bills. 

Will the act threaten Catholics and religious organizations?

The text of RFMA claims the bill will have “no impact on religious liberty and conscience.” 

But policy experts and Church leaders say the opposite is true: The bill will empower the government to come after those who believe in the sanctity of marriage.

Jon Schweppe, policy director for American Principles Project (APP), explained that the religious protections that did make it in the RFMA are “really limited.”

“My biggest concern with this is that now we’re pretty much relying on the courts to uphold the First Amendment,” Schweppe said. “You can’t rely on the court system to save you. They’re going to find ways to persecute you.”

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s amendment to include explicit religious liberty protections for those who hold to the sanctity of marriage failed by a vote of 48-49. 

Lee argued the RFMA will lead to litigation attacks against those who believe in traditional marriage unless the bill provides viable protections for them instead of solely the possibility of a court defense.

“Instead of subjecting churches, religious nonprofits, and persons of conscience to undue scrutiny or punishment by the federal government because of their views on marriage, we should make explicitly clear that this legislation does not constitute a national policy endorsing a particular view of marriage that threatens the tax-exempt status of faith-based nonprofits,” Lee wrote in a November letter to his fellow senators. 

Schweppe told CNA that the RFMA “also doesn’t protect conscience for individuals.”

“Ultimately there are going to be religious believers who will have their lives destroyed because of this bill,” he said. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is alarmed about what the bill’s passage will mean for people of faith. 

“Senators promoting the Act have claimed that their amended bill ‘respects and protects Americans’ religious liberties,’ but the provisions of the Act that relate to religious liberty are insufficient,” the USCCB wrote in a Nov. 17 statement opposing the bill. 

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“The Act will be used as evidence that religious believers must surrender to the state’s interest in recognizing same-sex civil marriages,” the letter said, citing bakers, adoption providers, and other faith-based organizations at risk of discrimination. 

How many Republicans voted for the bill? 

Earlier in November, 12 Republican senators — Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Todd Young of Indiana — joined 50 Democrats to vote for advancing the bill past a filibuster so it could reach a final vote.

The same Republican senators voted for final passage of the bill Tuesday, for a 61-36 vote total. 

The critical role Republicans played in passing the RFMA is viewed by many conservatives and people of faith as an egregious breach of trust.

“It's a stunning betrayal from the party that’s supposed to be fighting against wokeness; fighting against this evil movement on the left,” Schweppe said. 

Paige Agostin, policy director of the conservative think tank Center for Renewing America, called the passage “the Roe v. Wade of marriage bills.”

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“[It] will weaponize the entire Left to go after people of faith,” she told CNA.

Wasn’t same-sex marriage already legalized? 

The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage rights in the 2013 and 2015 Supreme Court decisions United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, obliterating the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

Under Obergefell, all states are required to allow same-sex marriages.

However, Democrats have pushed for the RFMA bill to further embed same-sex marriage protections into law after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. In that decision, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion suggested the court should reconsider all “substantive due process” cases, including Obergefell. 

What’s next? 

The RFMA faces another round of voting in the House, where it is nearly certain to pass by the end of the year. It will then go to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has already promised to sign it into law. 

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