WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed gay marriage legislation into law Tuesday before a crowd of thousands, a ceremony that reflected growing acceptance of same-sex unions.
Lawmakers from both parties were there, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who led the effort to win over fellow Republicans on the measure, as well as first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. Singers Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper performed.
“This law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate in all its forms,” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House. “And that’s why this law matters to every single American.”
The triumphant mood played out against the backdrop of a right-wing backlash over gender issues, which has alarmed gay and transgender people and their advocates. Biden criticized the “callous, cynical laws introduced in the states targeting transgender children, terrifying families and criminalizing doctors who give children the care they need.”
Among the attendees were the owner of Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado where five people were killed in a shooting last month, and two survivors of the attack. The suspect has been charged with hate crimes. Plaintiffs from lawsuits that originally helped secure the nationwide right to gay marriage were also there.
The new law is intended to safeguard gay marriages if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverses Obergefell v. Hodges, its 2015 decision legalizing same-sex unions nationwide. The new law also protects interracial marriages. In 1967, the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia struck down laws in 16 states barring interracial marriage.
The signing marks the culmination of a monthslong bipartisan effort sparked by the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion available across the country.
In a concurring opinion in the case that overturned Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested revisiting other decisions, including the legalization of gay marriage, generating fear that more civil rights could be imperiled by the court’s conservative majority. Thomas did not include interracial marriage with other cases he said should be reconsidered.
Lawmakers crafted a compromise that was intended to assuage conservative concerns about religious liberty, such as ensuring churches could still refuse to perform gay marriages. In addition, states will not be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But they will be required to recognize marriages conducted elsewhere in the country.
“This is truly an important and historic step forward for religious freedom as well as for ensuring dignity and respect for all Americans,” Collins said in a statement.
A majority of Republicans in Congress still voted against the legislation. However, enough supported it to sidestep a filibuster in the Senate and ensure its passage. Biden credited Collins for her work in his remarks, saying she “did not rest until this bill got done.”
Other Maine attendees at the ceremony included former House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, the only openly gay person to hold that position, and Gia Drew, the executive director of the LGBT-rights group EqualityMaine.
Tuesday’s ceremony marks another chapter in Biden’s legacy on gay rights. He memorably and unexpectedly endorsed same-sex unions in a television interview in 2012, when he was vice president. Days later, President Barack Obama announced that he also supported them.
A Gallup poll showed only 27 percent of U.S. adults supported same-sex unions in 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which said the federal government would only recognize heterosexual marriages. Biden voted for the legislation.
By the time of Biden’s 2012 interview, gay marriage remained controversial, but support had expanded to roughly half of U.S. adults, according to Gallup. Earlier this year, 71 percent said same-sex unions should be recognized by law. Maine legalized it at the ballot box that year, while Collins became the fourth Republican senator to back same-sex marriage in 2014.
Biden has pushed to expand LGBT rights since taking office. He reversed President Donald Trump’s efforts to strip transgender people of anti-discrimination protections. His administration includes the first openly gay Cabinet member, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and the first transgender person to receive Senate confirmation, Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine.
Story by Chris Megarian. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.