The bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act is a sign of a reviving center.
If the midterms seemed to suggest that the forces of moderation have not been completely wiped from the American civic consciousness, then the Senate’s overcoming of the filibuster this week to advance the Respect For Marriage bill seems like proof of principle. It repealed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 — the first and last federal attempt to intervene in what has always been a matter for the states; it insisted that the states can decide their own marriage laws in the unlikely event that Obergefell is overturned; it mandated that, whatever the court may or may not say in the future, a civil marriage license legal in one state must be legally respected by other states; it reiterated that a legal marriage is only between two people; and, critically, and most important, it added specific protections for religious freedom.
Here’s part of the language in a comprehensive religious freedom amendment. It would:
Protect all religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution or Federal law, including but not limited to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and forbids this bill from being used to diminish or repeal any such protection;
Confirm that non-profit religious organizations will not be required to provide any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.
This is a careful, constitutional and political balancing act. Part of its inspiration comes from the Utah Compromise of 2015, in which Mormon church leaders and Utah’s gay groups struck a grand bargain: gay couples would have an unequivocal right to marry in the state; Mormons and others would retain concrete protections for religious liberty and speech. The deal passed overwhelmingly in the Utah legislature, and has been a major success. (That’s why for anyone following this debate for a while, the Mormon Church’s support for the RFMA is not a surprise — however wonderful it remains. In Utah, one of the most socially conservative states in the country, 72 percent now support marriage equality.)