On Nov. 16, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan cast votes in favor of advancing the Respect for Marriage Act, which would provide federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages.
Three days later, a gunman entered Club Q, a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and killed five people there, wounding almost 20 others. Federal authorities have filed hate crime charges against the perpetrator.
The Respect for Marriage Act wouldn’t have stopped the Colorado Springs shooting, just as it wouldn’t have saved the 49 people killed in the Pulse gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. But the recognition that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans deserve the same legal rights as their straight friends and neighbors is one small step in the right direction — one small step toward a country where they can feel safe being who they are.
As its name implies, the Respect for Marriage Act is no radical, sweeping legislation that would upend America’s social mores. On the contrary, it codifies a status quo that most Americans thought was already settled and immutable until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 50-year-old precedent that protected women’s right to an abortion, using a legal argument that also put at risk gay marriages and relationships, interracial marriages and even the right to contraception. These were precedents well settled in the courts of law and of public opinion — few people thought there would be any way they would be in danger. But after the Supreme Court’s abortion decision and Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion specifically inviting legal challenges to the other rights, it was clear that Congress needed to act.
The bill that will come before the Senate for final passage Nov. 28 represents a balancing act. Crafted by a bipartisan group of senators, it codifies federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages while at the same time preserving the rights of individuals, businesses and religious groups to not participate or provide services for those unions if it conflicts with their beliefs. In fact, in explaining their votes on advancing the bill, Murkowski and Sullivan gave starkly different answers — Murkowski said she supported its protection of the marriages of “countless couples,” while Sullivan said he was in favor of the bill’s efforts to “respect and defend the religious liberty of all Americans.” The bill is so measured in its approach, in fact, that it has garnered the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Respect for Marriage Act isn’t a gift or a concession. It’s a belated formality and a defense against a court that has already proven its willingness to overturn what most of us believed were settled matters. It’s a shame that in this day and age, it’s necessary to codify in law that people’s right to have their union recognized isn’t dependent on their race or sex. But if it has to be done, it should be, and Alaska’s U.S. senators are putting themselves on the right side of history by casting their votes in favor of recognizing that right. They should hold fast to that position when the Respect for Marriage Act comes before the Senate on Monday.