Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., was the main sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate on Wednesday advanced a bill that would codify federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages while also protecting religious liberty rights.
The vote to begin debate of the Respect for Marriage Act was 62-37, with all Democrats and 12 Republicans voting in favor.
"Today, the Senate made it clear that we stand with the American people by voting to move forward with the #RespectForMarriageAct," Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the main sponsor of the bill, said in a tweet. "This is a HUGE win and we are one step closer to ensuring same-sex and interracial couples have the same rights & freedoms as everyone else!"
The bill requires the federal government to recognize marriages between two individuals that are valid in the state where they are entered into and guarantees that valid marriages will be recognized, regardless of the couple's sex, race, ethnicity or national origin. The bill would not require a state to issue a marriage license contrary to state law.
The vote was scheduled after a bipartisan group of senators, including Baldwin, crafted an amendment to the legislation that confirms nonprofit religious organizations will not be required to provide any services or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.
In addition, the amendment clarifies the bill does not require or authorize the federal government to recognize polygamous marriages.
The legislation also would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states.
In addition to Baldwin, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C, helped write the amendment.
The House passed the bill 267-157 in July, with the support of all Democrats and 47 Republicans. If passed with the amendment, the legislation would return to the House for another vote.
The bill is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in June that struck down the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority, wrote in a concurrence that the court should reconsider some of its previous rulings, include decisions allowing same-sex marriage and access to contraception.
Religious liberty advocates and faith groups are divided on the Respect for Marriage Act, with opponents arguing the bill is an attack on people who have a traditional view of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Some said the bill could lead to unions involving minors and adults or open marriages.
But other religious organizations said the right to marry is a matter of human dignity. Some faith groups - including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - supported the bill while also saying their doctrine on traditional marriage remains unchanged.
"We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters," the LDS Church, formerly known as the Mormon Church, said in a statement Tuesday. "We believe this approach is the way forward. As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a member of the LDS Church, said in a tweet the legislation provides important protections for religious liberty. He cited Obergefell vs. Hodges, a 2015 Supreme Court decision that said same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.
"While I believe in traditional marriage, Obergefell is and has been the law of the land upon which LGBTQ individuals have relied," Romney said. "This legislation provides certainty to many LGBTQ Americans, and it signals that Congress -- and I -- esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who also is an LDS Church member, voted against the bill and called the religious freedom protections "severely anemic."
"The bill significantly enhances the risk of religious institutions losing their tax-exempt status," Lee tweeted. "While it may appear at first glance to protect against that, closer scrutiny reveals that it does not."