Two prominent Latter-day Saint leaders joined the White House signing ceremony Tuesday as President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into federal law.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simultaneously released a statement praising those who helped create and pass the law, describing the successful effort to add religious liberty protections to its language “both historic and commendable.”
“Today’s a good day,” Biden said before signing the bill in a unique ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, “a day America takes a vital step toward equality, toward liberty and justice, not just for some but for everyone — everyone — toward creating a nation where decency, dignity and love are recognized, honored and protected.”
Representing the church at Biden’s invitation were Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy, and former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who recently completed 10 years of service as an area seventy for the church.
“The signing of the Respect for Marriage Act today was a restatement of the existing law as defined by the Supreme Court or acknowledged and same sex marriage,” Elder Gerard said in a telephone interview. “But the significance for us is the Respect for Marriage Act acknowledges people with differences of opinion surrounding marriage and acknowledges our doctrine — marriage between one man and one woman — and provides the religious freedom protections necessary for us to continue to practice our faith and our doctrine, which remains unchanged.”
The Respect for Marriage Act redefines marriage for purposes of federal law as between two persons and grants federal protections to same-sex and interracial marriages. It was amended over the past two weeks to include federal protections for religious beliefs and freedoms.
Those protections ensure that churches and faiths can maintain their own doctrines and definitions of marriage and won’t be forced to perform or host same-sex marriages.
A number of faith groups attended the ceremony at Biden’s invitation, including Orthodox Jewish leaders and representatives from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, Elder Gerard said.
The new law includes specific language that says, “Diverse beliefs about the role of gender in marriage are held by reasonable and sincere people based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises.”
Elder Gerard said that and other amendments were critical to people of faith.
“It is really quite significant that the Congress recognized, and today the president signed, legislation that said people with views like ours of marriage between one man and one woman are honorable people who need to be respected and they should not have their faith or their practices challenged,” he said.
“Congress has now reaffirmed that our beliefs ‘are due proper respect,’” the church statement said. “The new law demonstrates that respect.”
“The law states that it can’t be used to harm religious or conscience rights for faith-based institutions,” the church statement continued. “It protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. It protects the grants, licenses, contracts and accreditation of religious schools. And it ensures that religious organizations, religious schools and their employees do not have to perform or host same-sex marriages or celebrations. No law is perfect. But putting such protections in the federal code is a big step forward.” (See the full church statement below.)
Religious leaders from various faiths played roles in amending the Respect for Marriage Act, which was passed by the House in July without any religious liberty protections.
Working together with LGBTQ advocates in and out of Congress, they and others helped craft amendments to the law that provided protections for religion. The amended bill drew 12 Republican senators to join all Democrats to pass the bill in the Senate. In the House, 39 GOP members voted for it.
“The church has been pleased to participate with many others in the difficult but worthy work of civil engagement that accompanied the passage of this bill,” the Church of Jesus Christ said in its statement.
The Respect for Marriage Act was a direct response to a written opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that the court should reconsider its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established a federal right to same-sex marriage.
That created concern that the court might overturn Obergefell and invalidate hundreds of thousands of same-sex marriages, though many court observers considered it unlikely.
The Respect for Marriage Act erases the Defense of Marriage Act, which had defined marriage federally as between a man and a woman and was already moot because it had been struck down by the Supreme Court.
The Respect for Marriage Act does not force states to grant same-sex marriage licenses, though that is the law of the land since Obergefell. If the court were to overturn Obergefell in the future, more than half the states already have laws on their books that would prohibit same-sex marriage, but the Respect for Marriage Act now requires those states to recognize same-sex marriages entered in other states. It also requires all states to recognize that same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as any other married couple.
The law protects interracial marriages by requiring states to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina lobbied fellow Republican senators to pass the bill by noting that the Church of Jesus Christ and other religious groups supported it, PBS reported.
“They see this as a step forward for religious freedom,” Tillis said, because it supports rights for LGBTQ couples without infringing on religious groups’ right to believe as they choose.
The majority of Congressional Republicans still opposed the bill. They considered it unnecessary and expressed concerns about religious liberty.
Elder Gerard, who has been the executive director of the Church Communication Department for nearly five years, has attended other White House signing ceremonies but said this one was unique because it was much larger than usual and included entertainment.
The South Lawn was packed with thousands of people from diverse groups, a representation of the bipartisan nature of the bill.
The event also included musical performances by Sam Smith, Cyndi Lauper and others.
Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris hailed the bill signing as a symbol of finding common ground.
“Today, President Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, which uplifts human dignity by protecting the civil recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages,” the group said in a statement. “We are delighted by the broad support this bill has received from people of faith, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; a coalition of 45 religious and faith-based organizations including Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Unitarians and many more; Sikh and Jewish organizations; the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; the National Association of Evangelicals; and several other churches, congregations and faith-based groups.”
The National Association of Evangelicals supported the religious freedom protections in the bill but did not endorse the bill as a whole, a spokesperson said.
About 61% of Americans expressed a positive view of the impact of the legalization of same-sex marriage in a poll released last month by the Pew Research Center. Some 37% had a negative view.
Among those ages 18 to 29, 83% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans said the legalization of same-sex marriage is good for society, the center reported.
Here is the full statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
“We extend a heartfelt thank you and our congratulations to all who played a part in the passage of the amended Respect for Marriage Act. Their efforts to protect religious freedom as Congress sought to codify the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision are both historic and commendable.
“The amended Respect for Marriage Act specifically recognizes that ‘diverse beliefs about the role of gender in marriage are held by reasonable and sincere people based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises.’
“As re-stated last month, ‘the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints related to marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged.’ Congress has now reaffirmed that our beliefs ‘are due proper respect.’
“The new law demonstrates that respect. The law states that it can’t be used to harm religious or conscience rights for faith-based institutions. It protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. It protects the grants, licenses, contracts and accreditation of religious schools. And it ensures that religious organizations, religious schools and their employees do not have to perform or host same-sex marriages or celebrations. No law is perfect. But putting such protections in the federal code is a big step forward.
“The church has been pleased to participate with many others in the difficult but worthy work of civil engagement that accompanied the passage of this bill. Like the church-supported Utah law in 2015, our efforts are helping the nation pursue freedom, fairness and respect for all.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated a representative of the National Association of Evangelicals attended the bill signing. A spokesperson for the NAE said no representative attended.