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Biden signs same-sex marriage bill in musical White House ceremony

Pop star performers joined members of Congress in ceremony for one of the last major bills passed before GOP control of the House next year

Cyndi Lauper performs before President Joe Biden signs a bill to protect same-sex marriages during a ceremony Tuesday on the South Lawn of the White House.
Cyndi Lauper performs before President Joe Biden signs a bill to protect same-sex marriages during a ceremony Tuesday on the South Lawn of the White House. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden signed into law Tuesday a bill to protect same-sex marriages, at a White House ceremony resembling a victory lap set to a soundtrack of pop music stars Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper.

The South Lawn ceremony featured performances from the two artists, as well as speeches from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and the couple that brought the lawsuit that prompted a Massachusetts court to legalize same-sex marriage in that state.

Accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Lauper performed her song “True Colors,” which also shares the name of a group to fight LGBTQ homelessness she co-founded in 2008. Smith, who performed the hit song “Stay With Me,” came out as gay in 2014 and nonbinary in 2019.

Biden, in a speech, emphasized the importance of congressional action to formally repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and codify federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Supporters said the law in part would be a backstop in case the Supreme Court ever reversed its 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriages nationwide.

“It is one thing for the Supreme Court to rule on a case, but it is another thing entirely for elected representatives of the people to take a vote on the floor of the United States Congress and say loudly and clearly, ‘Love is love,’” Biden said.

The bill, which passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support, is one of the last major pieces of legislation that Democrats will pass before handing control of the House over to Republicans next Congress.

Pelosi noted that the law served as a bookend to her own time as House speaker. She had prioritized LGBTQ issues such as funding to fight HIV and AIDS from her first term as Congress. Her first term as speaker concluded with her shepherding a bill into law that ended the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing openly LGBTQ people to serve in the military.

“With courage, fortitude and unity, we have achieved a landmark victory in equality,” Pelosi said. “For millions of Americans, the impacts of this law are necessary and fundamental.”

Pelosi, who did not run for another term as Democratic leader, said she and others still want to push further on legislation, including bills that would establish federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

Biden emphasized Pelosi’s central role in pushing for the legislation. “Equality and dignity for the LGBT community have always been her North Star,” Biden said.

The president also expressed a desire to go further than the legislation signed into law Tuesday, particularly for federal protections against discrimination.

“When a person can be married in the morning and be thrown out of a restaurant for being gay in the afternoon, this is still wrong,” Biden said.

Such a bill is unlikely to pass in the next two years with a Republican-controlled House and a closely divided Senate.

Bipartisan support

The new law celebrated Tuesday, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, passed the House on a 258-169-1 vote last week, with 39 Republicans voting to support the measure. Last month it passed the Senate on a 61-36 vote after months of bipartisan negotiations led by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

The law repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, which the Supreme Court ruled largely unconstitutional in a 2013 decision. Language in the law also codifies federal recognition of same-sex marriages that were legal in the state they were performed.

Other provisions in the bill would require state government entities to recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states and provide a private right of action for couples to sue if they have been discriminated against.

A compromise worked out by Baldwin, Collins and the other Senate negotiators added provisions to protect the tax-exempt status and other government benefits of religious institutions.

Many conservatives still opposed the bill, saying the religious protections did not go far enough or that the law invited litigation that would force entities like religious adoption agencies to fold.

Democrats prioritized the same-sex marriage legislation after the Supreme Court ruling issued earlier this year in Dobbs v. Jackson Whole Women’s Health that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas called for the court to revisit other decisions, including the one establishing a right to same-sex marriage.

Vice President Kamala Harris praised the new law as a victory but pointed to Thomas’ decision to say it was “part of a larger fight.”

“The Dobbs decision reminds us that fundamental rights are interconnected, including the right to marry who you love, the right to access contraception and the right to make decisions about your own body,” Harris said, referring to the decisions Thomas said the court should reconsider.

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