Vermont congressional delegation celebrates Senate passage of marriage equality bill

Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy. File photos by Kit Norton and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 4:23 p.m.

Vermont’s congressional delegation is celebrating the U.S. Senate’s passage of a landmark bill that would protect the legality of interracial and same-sex marriage nationwide.

The upper chamber voted 61-36 on Tuesday evening to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, with Vermont’s U.S. senators — Democrat Patrick Leahy and independent Bernie Sanders — voting yes. The bill is awaiting a final vote in the U.S. House before it heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. 

The state’s sole delegate to the U.S. House, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted yes when the bill came before the lower chamber in July and plans to vote yes again when the bill returns to the House, according to Welch spokesperson Emily Becker.

Interracial and same-sex marriage are both legal nationwide thanks to two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions: Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in 1967, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

But Congress has never codified those marriage rights into law, and Supreme Court case precedents are vulnerable to reversal. That’s what happened in June, when the conservative majority of the court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, thereby ending the federal right to an abortion.

Democrats are now bracing for that possibility when it comes to marriage equality. In his concurrence with the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas opened the door to reversing precedents establishing the rights to contraception, same-sex relations and same-sex marriage, calling the rulings “demonstrably erroneous” and calling on the court to “correct the error.” (Thomas, who himself is in an interracial marriage, did not name Loving as a case to be reconsidered.)

In a written statement Tuesday following the Senate’s vote, Sanders said, “In the year 2022, we will not let an extremist Supreme Court drag us back in time.”

“Marriage has always been an inalienable right. And now today, we are on our way to protecting that right for all,” Sanders said.

Leahy also celebrated the bill’s Senate passage, saying that the country on Tuesday “became a slightly more perfect union by recognizing the sanctity of marriage between two individuals, regardless of gender or race.”

“A decision such as who to spend your life with should not be determined by a state, local, or federal government,” Leahy continued. “It is regrettable that throughout our history, too many Americans have been denied the right to marry who they love based on their gender or race.”

Democrats hold a slim majority in the U.S. Senate, and thanks to the parliamentary filibuster rule requiring a 60-vote supermajority to pass major legislation, it has been difficult for the party to pass some of its top priorities during Biden’s first two years in office.

Tuesday’s vote was bipartisan — a fact that Leahy lauded, saying that “a group of bipartisan Senators remained committed to the principle that all legally valid marriages between two people who love and care for each other deserve equal treatment under the law everywhere in our country.” But only 12 Republican senators in the 50-member GOP caucus voted ‘yes’ on Tuesday.

Leahy cosponsored the latest version of the Respect for Marriage Act and has cosponsored previous versions of similar legislation dating back to 2012. But he has not always voted for nationwide marriage equality: In 1996, Leahy and 84 other senators voted to pass the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. (The late Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., also voted for the bill at the time.)

In the U.S. House that year, the bill overwhelmingly passed in a 342-67 vote. Democratic President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

At the time, Sanders was one of those 67 dissenters in the House. On Tuesday, he said that a critical component of this year’s legislation was the repeal of DOMA.

Welch on Wednesday reiterated his support for the legislation, which the House is slated to vote on next week.

“For so many of us, marrying the person we love is enriching and beautiful. It’s painful to think that someone would be denied that right because of the gender of the person they love,” Welch said in a statement.

He also took a swipe at Justice Thomas by name.

“Justice Clarence Thomas has made it clear that he’d like the most conservative Supreme Court in a generation to reverse Obergefell v. Hodges, which would jeopardize same-sex marriage protections,” Welch continued. “It’s a real threat to LGBTQ+ rights, and it’s why passing the Respect for Marriage Act is so essential.”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: smearhoff@vtdigger.org

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