The possibility of having same-sex marriage rights ripped away has been weighing heavily on the mind of Myoshi Smith — and her clients.
“This has definitely been a huge fear of mine,” said Smith, a pansexual relationship enhancement specialist based in Baltimore’s Pigtown community. “I work with 40% to 50% of my clients who consider themselves to be queer. There’s been a lot of raised anxiety and fear about their rights being taken away.”
Same-sex couples and advocates in the Baltimore area felt a sense of relief Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives voted 258 to 169 to pass legislation to protect both same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native who is stepping away from her leadership role in the next Congress, wiped her eye in a show of emotion before signing it. The measure, already passed by the closely divided U.S. Senate, now heads to the desk of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who is expected to swiftly sign it into law.
Action by the Democratic-controlled Congress came months after the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending federal protections for abortion rights, and conservative Justice Clarence Thomas began publicly questioning the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage. Hundreds of thousands of couples have married since the high court’s decision.
Lee Carpenter, an estates and trusts attorney at Niles, Barton & Wilmer and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, describes the latest developments as “encouraging.”
“Simply put, marriage is good for couples and good for society, so it’s reassuring to see some conservative legislators acknowledging as much through their votes,” Carpenter said.
The House’s action ends months of angst among members of the LGBTQ community. In June, two conservative justices stated that the ruling ending federal protections for abortion didn’t pose a threat to other rights recognized by the courts, including same-sex marriage. But many saw Thomas’ concurring opinion — which suggested that three other major Supreme Court rulings should be reconsidered — foreshadowed future attacks on LGBTQ rights. Conservatives secured a 6-3 supermajority on the court during the Trump administration.
The push for federal legislation protecting same-sex marriage gained support following Thomas’ concurring opinion. Last week, the Senate voted 61-36 to pass the Respect for Marriage Act. The bill was supported by 12 Republicans and all members of the Senate Democratic caucus.
All members of Maryland’s congressional delegation voted for the Respect for Marriage Act except for U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a conservative Republican.
“All discrimination is wrong, and with the Respect for Marriage Act we are defending the millions of interracial and same-sex couples in America, whom many of us simply know as family, friends, and neighbors. I will continue to do everything in my power to defend the rights and liberties that make us American, including the right to love who you love,” said U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat.
The bill does not establish a national requirement that all states must legalize same-sex marriage, but it will require individual states to recognize another state’s legal marriage. For example, same-sex couples married in Maryland would have their union recognized in other states in the event that the 2015 court ruling is overturned and that state bans same-sex marriage. Maryland was one of the first states in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, by popular vote in 2012.
“I don’t really think that many people thought that a 50-year precedent would be overturned,” Smith said in reference to Roe v. Wade. “But I think that once that happened people really woke up to the fact that this Supreme Court was much more political and very conservative — the most conservative court that we’ve had in decades.”
Carpenter said that within minutes of Roe v. Wade being struck down, his phone started ringing from couples in same-sex marriages who were afraid that their legal protections were in jeopardy.
He said new legislation doesn’t do “everything it should,” but is a step in the right direction.
“If the Obergefell decision were overturned, states would suddenly be allowed to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That wouldn’t pose a problem in Maryland, where we legalized same-sex marriage in the legislature and through a ballot referendum. But in some states, a couple would have to travel out of state in order to tie the knot,” he explained. “One important thing to remember is that same-sex couples who are already married wouldn’t see their unions dissolved. Every state would have to recognize gay marriages performed in another state. But putting any limits on the right to get married would amount to a step backward.”
Byron Macfarlane, the register of wills for Howard County and an openly gay elected official, said he was happy to see Congress act. Control of the House passes over to the GOP in January.
“We know we can’t count on the Supreme Court anymore,” Macfarlane said. “In fact, we know it’s open season on civil rights after the court reversed Roe. It’s great to see Congress taking proactive steps to protect same-sex and interracial marriage in case our worst fears come true with our right-wing court. I hope this is the first of many steps we take to enshrine our rights in law.”
Marissa Dobson, a public relations and marketing consultant based in Lauraville, has been carefully following the developments. She and her wife are expecting a child in January. Since June, the two have been so worried about how the Supreme Court would rule that they came up with a “go plan” that would have resulted in them leaving the United States and raising their child in another country if their rights had been infringed.
“As half of an interracial lesbian married couple, the Supreme Court’s movements have been deeply unsettling,” Dobson said. “Though we have signed every legal document possible, neither of us feel secure. Even with the passage of this federal legislation, we feel under siege in this country.”
“When our first child is born in the new year, I will have to legally adopt him. It’s bizarre and archaic. I know we’re far more secure than many in the LGBT+ community, but it’s cold comfort,” she added.
Smith said her worry now is for her fellow LGBTQ members living elsewhere in this country.
“What I think is a little concerning is that the bill doesn’t set a national requirement,” she said. “I live in a blue state. Just like with abortion rights, I’m fine. I’m more concerned with my fellow queer people who live in red states. I definitely feel like this is a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.