Written By Chris Dolan and Nicoletter Rae Bencito
This week’s question comes from Aidan from San Francisco, who writes: My partner and I celebrated President Biden’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act into law. However, we are both still concerned that our rights to marriage equality and same-sex marriage are still in jeopardy. What exactly is the Respect for Marriage Act, and how will the law protect us when my partner and I decide to get married?
Thank you for your question. While the nation celebrates the passing of this landmark legislation, many people across the country have concerns. It is important to reflect on the nation’s history with marriage equality, and how the Respect for Marriage Act plays a role in protecting the rights afforded in marriage.
The main goal of the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to ensure respect for state regulation of marriage. As many remember, President Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, banning the federal recognition of same-sex marriage. It limited the definition of marriage to the union of one man and one woman. It further allowed states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. In prior rulings, the Supreme Court held that provisions under DOMA were unconstitutional. But Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) recently called marriage equality into question. The decision in Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade by finding the US Constitution does not protect the right to abortion. Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion argued that the Supreme Court should also reconsider the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). It held that the 14th amendment required all US states to recognize same-sex marriages. By signing the RFMA, Congress and President Biden legally require federal and state recognition of marriage between two individuals, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin. Should a state violate the RFMA, the act allows the Department of Justice to bring a civil action and establishes a private right of action for individuals for such violations.
It’s important to note that the RFMA does not require states to allow same-sex marriages. Suppose the Supreme Court decides to overturn this decision and previous state prohibitions on same-sex marriages go back into effect. In that case, RFMA only requires states and the federal government to respect marriages conducted in places where it is legal. While same-sex marriage has been legal in California since 2013, the rights of individuals who reside out-of-state may be in jeopardy should Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) be overturned. Additionally, the act does not require religious organizations to provide goods or services to formally recognize or celebrate a marriage or recognize under federal law any marriage between more than two individuals.
The signing of the RFMA marks a cultural shift in the nation’s stance on same sex-marriage. Less than 30 years ago, there was united opposition to expanding marriage equality from a relationship between a man and a woman. While the enactment of the RFMA signifies a step in the right direction for marriage equality across the nation, there are still a few areas within the law that the courts can address to protect the right to marriage further.
For over 20 years, the Dolan Law Firm has worked to protect an individual’s civil rights and fought for the full and complete equality of all persons in cases filed in federal and state court in San Francisco and across California. If you are currently experiencing a violation of your civil rights, speak up and start working with an experienced civil rights lawyer to rectify the issue. The civil rights lawyers at the Dolan Law firm are proud to be legal advocates for every person and community in California. The Dolan Law Firm here to protect you and your rights.