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House passes marriage equality bill with religious freedom protections. How did Utah GOP congressmen vote?

Respect for Marriage Act codifies same-sex, interracial marriage while saying law cannot ‘diminish or abrogate’ religious liberty protections

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Utah GOP Reps. John Curtis, left, Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens take the stage at an election night party.

Utah GOP Reps. John Curtis, left, Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens take the stage at an election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The House passed the amended version of the Respect for Marriage Act on Thursday with three of Utah’s four Republican congressmen voting in favor of the bill that now includes protections for religious liberty.

Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore and Chris Stewart joined 39 GOP House members and all 219 Democrats in approving the legislation in a 258-169 vote. Rep. Burgess Owens voted present, the only representative to do so. All four Utah congressmen voted for the bill in the summer before the Senate added religious liberty protections.

Stewart said he “proudly” voted for the bill in July and was proud again to vote in favor of “protecting our LGBTQ and religious friends and neighbors.”

“As a man of faith and a conservative, ensuring the religious liberties of people in Utah is absolutely essential. This bill not only guarantees that protection, but simultaneously expands the rights of those in the LGBTQ community,” he said in a statement.

“The alternative to this bipartisan solution — the Equality Act — is hostile to religious liberty and would exact a heavy toll on religious Americans.”

In addition, he said same-sex marriage is already legal in the United States, and the Respect for Marriage Act did not change that. It simply expands current religious freedoms and LGBTQ civil rights, Stewart said.

“Civil rights are not a finite resource; we do not have to take from one group to give to another. The intent of our forefathers in the Constitution was to strike a balance that protects fundamental religious beliefs with individual liberties. I believe this bipartisan legislation effectively does just that,” Stewart said.

Curtis said the majority opinion of the Supreme Court clearly stated that the court has no intention of reversing any decisions respecting the right to marriage in the Constitution.

“That said, I am proud to have voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act that codifies these protections which are important to many Utahns,” he said in a statement.

Moore said the Supreme Court has already required all states to recognize same-sex marriages, and that he voted for a bill that strengthens religious freedom protections.

“It is my personal religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, but our nation must see that Congress is capable of coming together to overcome our differences in a way that respects our sincerely held beliefs,” he said in a statement. “As The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states, we must uphold religious freedom protections while respecting the right to same-sex marriage.”

While Owens voted for the bill without religious liberty protections in the summer, he said Thursday, “While today is undoubtedly a giant step toward religious liberty, my lone ‘present’ vote signals a warning beacon that the war is far from won.”

“Religious freedom cannot prevail until and unless individuals and small business owners practicing their sincere religious beliefs have explicit protection under the law,” he said. “By protecting churches and religious organizations, we are only scratching the surface of the full scope of our First Amendment rights.” 

The Senate passed the bill last week which federally recognizes any marriage between two people as long as it’s valid in a U.S. state, codifying the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

The bill includes amendments protecting religious rights that garnered the support of a number of faith organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which called the approach “the way forward” while making it clear the faith’s “doctrine on marriage will remain unchanged.”

The law would ensure federal recognition of same-sex marriages that take place in states where they are legal. It would not require states to allow same-sex couples to marry, but it would repeal and replace both provisions of federal law that do not require states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

“Today, we stand up for the values the vast majority of Americans hold dear, a belief in the dignity, beauty and ... spark of divinity, in every person and abiding respect for love so powerful that it binds two people together,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a speech on the House floor. 

President Joe Biden is expected to quickly sign the measure. He has said that ensuring federal protections for marriage equality is one of his priorities in the lame-duck Congress.

The bill passed the Senate 61-36 with 12 Republicans voting in favor, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney who signaled his support for the bill earlier in the month after other amendments helped solidify “important protections for religious liberty,” he said.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee voted against the bill, after his attempt to bolster protections for religious liberty in an amendment failed to garner the necessary 60 votes.

Religious liberty advocates hailed the bipartisan passage of the amended bill as a landmark deal protecting the free exercise of religion.

“It’s a big deal because it’s bipartisan and it deals with a culture war issue. So I think as a bipartisan religious freedom accomplishment, it’s the biggest thing in 30 years,” said Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership.

The act redefines marriage in federal law as between two persons, codifying Supreme Court rulings that established same-sex and interracial marriage.

But it also explicitly added to federal law new language that says the new federal definition of marriage cannot “diminish or abrogate” religious freedom protections provided by the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

RFRA was passed in 1993 and obligates the federal government to protect religious exercise. It has faced major challenges, including a partial Supreme Court defeat. In 2000, Congress by unanimous consent defined religious exercise to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” through the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“People who care about religious liberty should be happy about this,” Schultz said. “There’s tension there, because many people on the religious right have decided that it’s more important to oppose LGBT rights, no matter what, but I think for people whose primary interest here is religious freedom, several scholars like Douglas Laycock have said this is really a huge victory for religious liberty.”

The act expressly states that “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.”

It also says 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. Therefore, Congress affirms that such people and their diverse beliefs are due proper respect.”

Contributing: Tad Walch