U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said a bill she has helped lead to codify same-sex marriage protections would enhance protections for both LGBTQ and religious Americans before it passed the Senate on Tuesday.
“The bill simply requires government actors to recognize valid marriages and provide marriage-based rights to which married couples are entitled,” Collins said on the Senate floor before the vote.
The Senate voted 61-36 to pass the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday, weeks after it met a procedural hurdle in the chamber with 11 Republican votes, enough to avoid a filibuster. This version must pass in the House before going to President Joe Biden’s desk. Passage is likely in the waning weeks of Democratic control of the lower chamber.
Collins is the lead Republican on the landmark legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. It is the second time she has voted for LGBTQ-rights legislation in a lame duck session of Congress. She co-wrote legislation to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay people serving in the military, becoming one of eight Republican senators to vote to discard the policy.
Until her heated 2020 reelection campaign in which Democratic interests rallied behind challenger Sara Gideon after Collins voted in 2018 to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the senator had good relations with LGBTQ-rights groups. She attended a fundraiser at a Portland gay bar during her 1994 gubernatorial run at a time when same-sex relations were still illegal in several states.
Collins spent much of her floor speech appealing to conservatives to highlight religious liberty provisions of the bill, which have brought it support from religious groups including the Mormon church. The bill’s text says nonprofit religious organizations won’t be forced to provide any services to solemnize or celebrate a marriage. It guarantees that the act would not alter the tax exempt status of any religious organizations, regardless of their views on marriage.
Many on the religious right, including the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, continue to argue that the bill would pose risks to organizations and individuals who oppose same-sex marriage. Collins swatted down that notion in her speech, saying the situation wouldn’t change much after the 2015 high-court decision allowing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
“If you cannot be sued now under Obergefell, you cannot be sued under the Respect for Marriage Act,” Collins said.
Interracial and same-sex marriage rights are protected by Supreme Court precedent. However, concern arose about those protection after the court reversed a constitutional right to abortion in June, especially because Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence said the court should also “reconsider” the right to same-sex marriage.
In an effort to win the 10 Republican votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats delayed consideration until after the midterm elections, hoping that would relieve political pressure on senators who might be wavering.
The delay appeared to work. Along with Collins, Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and the retiring Rob Portman of Ohio supported the bill early on and have lobbied their GOP colleagues to support it. The growing GOP support for the issue is a sharp contrast from a decade ago.
Collins was careful at first on the issue, coming out in support of same-sex marriage in 2014, about a year and a half after Mainers legalized it at the ballot box. She was still only the fourth Republican senator to do so by that time.
Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, said this month that the newfound openness from many Republicans on the subject reminds her of the arc of the LGBTQ movement from “the early days when people weren’t out and people knew gay people by myths and stereotypes.” As more individuals and families have become visible, minds have changed, she said.
“And slowly laws have followed,” she said. “It is history.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.