WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday gave final approval to legislation to mandate federal recognition for same-sex marriages, with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voting in favor of the measure in the waning days of the Democratic-led Congress.
With a vote of 258-169, the landmark legislation cleared Congress, sending it to President Biden to be signed into law and capping an improbable path for a measure that only months ago appeared to have little chance at enactment.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the tally triumphantly, banging the gavel repeatedly as if to applaud as members of the House cheered.
It was the second time in five months that the House had taken up the Respect for Marriage Act. Last summer, 47 House Republicans joined Democrats in support of the legislation, a level of GOP enthusiasm for same-sex marriage rights that surprised and delighted its supporters. That set off an intensive effort among a bipartisan group of proponents in the Senate — boosted quietly by a coalition of influential Republican donors and operatives, some of them gay — to find the 10 Republican votes necessary in that chamber to move it forward.
In the Senate, the legislation was revised to address concerns among some Republicans that it would punish or restrict the religious freedom of institutions that refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. That version passed last month, forcing it back to the House for a second vote to approve the changes.
But the revisions appeared to have failed to build support for the bill among Republicans in the House; on Thursday, fewer Republicans supported it than in July.
The push to pass the legislation began after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his opinion in the June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to abortion, that the court also “should reconsider” precedents enshrining marriage equality and access to contraception.
But what began as a messaging exercise for Democrats eager to highlight social issues during the midterm elections turned into a serious legislative push after a much higher number of House Republicans than anyone had expected voted in favor of the measure. After an intensive lobbying effort that culminated after the elections, the Senate passed the legislation with the support of 12 Republicans.
“Today, we will vote for equality and against discrimination by finally overturning the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act and guaranteeing crucial protections for same-sex and interracial marriages,” Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said Thursday in the moments before it passed.
The fact that the bill managed to attract decisive, bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and the House proves a significant shift in American politics and culture on an issue that was once considered politically divisive. Over the past decade, same-sex marriage has become widely accepted by members of both parties, and polls show that more than 70 percent of voters support same-sex marriage.
Still, the majority of Republicans remained opposed. During a debate Thursday, they argued that the measure was a response to a nonexistent threat to same-sex marriage rights and condemned the bill as immoral.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats had “conjured up” an “unfounded fear” that the Supreme Court was on the brink of nullifying same-sex marriage rights and other precedents and said the measure still lacked sufficient protections for organizations that do not consider such unions valid.
“It is dangerous,” Jordan said of the legislation, “and takes the country in the wrong direction.”
Representative Bob Good, Republican of Virginia, derided the measure as the “disrespect for marriage act.”
“This bill certainly disrespects God’s definition of marriage,” Good said, “and his definition is the only one that really matters.”
The legislation repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and allows states to refuse to honor same-sex marriages performed in other states. It prohibits states from denying the validity of an out-of-state marriage based on sex, race, or ethnicity.
But in a condition that Republican backers insisted upon, it would guarantee that religious organizations would not be required to provide any goods or services for the celebration of any marriage and could not lose tax-exempt status or other benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex unions.