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Biden signs Respect for Marriage Act, recognizing marriage equality in federal law

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Washington — President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday at a triumphant White House ceremony, enshrining federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages into federal law for the first time.

Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic and Republican lawmakers and more than 5,000 guests marked the occasion on a frigid White House South Lawn. The signing comes a decade after Mr. Biden as vice president put former President Barack Obama in an awkward position by getting ahead of the then-president and endorsing same-sex marriage on NBC's "Meet the Press." 

"Today, I sign the Respect for Marriage Act into law," Mr. Biden said Tuesday. "Deciding whether to marry, who to marry, is one of the most profound decisions a person can make. And as I've said before and some of you might remember, on a certain TV show 10 years ago, I got in trouble. Marriage, I mean this with all of my heart, marriage is a simple proposition: Who do you love and will you be loyal to that person you love? It's not more complicated than that." 

The Respect for Marriage Act overturns the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing marriages that were not between a man and a woman. It also requires states to recognize any valid marriage performed in other states, regardless of sex. 

Same-sex marriage has been legal nationwide since the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, and the court ruled in 1967 that state laws barring interracial marriages were unconstitutional. But after the court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, critics warned the right to same-sex and interracial marriage would be at risk if the court ever reversed those decisions, giving Democrats renewed momentum to push for a statute that protects the unions. 

Mr. Biden thanked members of Congress, particularly Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Republican Sen. Susan Collins, for their commitment to passing the law. Thirty-nine House Republicans joined House Democrats last week in supporting the bill's final passage. Twelve Republicans voted for the legislation in the Senate, after an amendment was added ensuring that nonprofit religious groups wouldn't be required to provide services, goods or facilities to celebrate same-sex marriages, and safeguarding religious liberty and conscience protections in federal law. 

President Biden Holds Respect For Marriage Act Ceremony
President Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. Ting Shen/Bloomberg

Attendees at Tuesday's ceremony included Judy Kasen-Windsor, the widow of Edie Windsor, whose 2013 landmark case before the Supreme Court determined that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples; Matthew Haynes, the owner of Club Q, a Colorado Springs LGBTQ club where five people were killed last month; Club Q survivors James Slaugh and Michael Anderson; plaintiffs in the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide; an attorney in the case that legalized interracial marriage; and a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting. The president thanked activists who made personal sacrifices along the way. 

"My fellow Americans, the road to this moment has been long," the president said. "But those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up. Many of you are standing out on the South Lawn here. So many of you put your relationships on the line, your jobs on the line, your lives on the line." 

Appearing on the White House South Lawn stage ahead of the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer lauded the day as one of celebration. For Schumer, the new law is personal. 

"The tie I am wearing reminds me what this moment is all about," Schumer said. "It's the tie I wore on the day my daughter got married to a beautiful young lady, one of the happiest days of my life. Today, she and her wife are expecting their first child next spring, my third grandchild. And I want them to raise their child with all the love and security that every kid deserves. And thanks to the millions out there who spent years pushing for change and thanks to the dogged work of my colleagues, my grandchild will get to live in a world that respects and honors their mother's marriage." 

Pelosi, too, expressed her enthusiasm for the changing tides of history. 

"When I was ending my term as speaker the first time, one of the last bills I signed as speaker was December 2010, the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" Pelosi said. "And now it is so fitting in one of my final acts of speakership was to sign the Respect for Marriage Act." 

Surprise performers included Cyndi Lauper, who sang"True Colors," and Sam Smith, who performed "Stay With Me." 

"Americans can now love who they love," Lauper told reporters in the White House briefing room ahead of the event. 

U.S. President Biden signs "Respect for Marriage Act" at the White House in Washington
Musician Cyndi Lauper, salutes the crowd as she performs at the signing ceremony for the "Respect for Marriage Act," a landmark bill protecting same-sex marriage, on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022. KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

Kristin Brown contributed to this report.

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