Dec 15, 2022

Biden signs The Respect for Marriage Act.

Biden signs The Respect for Marriage Act.
Photo by Christian Lue / Unsplash

The bill has both sides of the aisle divided.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

The Respect for Marriage Act. Plus, a question about military vaccine mandates and an important story about our water supply in California. 

See you tomorrow?

In our final election day preview, on the day of the 2022 midterms, I gave a little space to a man named Simon Rosenberg. In a sea of predictions about the "red wave" and a bad day for Democrats, Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, was predicting the opposite: that Democrats were going to fare better than people thought and have a historically good midterm.

I wrote in that final preview that if Rosenberg ended up being right, he'd be on an island, and I would be sure to talk to him. On Monday, I sat down with "the man who got it right" for an hour long conversation about why he saw something so few others did, and what he thinks is coming in 2024. Tomorrow, we'll be publishing a transcript of that interview in our subscribers-only Friday edition. Keep an eye out, and be sure to share it!

Quick hits.

  1. Yesterday, the Federal Reserve once again hiked interest rates by 0.5%, bringing the benchmark rate to 4.25%-4.5%, a 15-year high. (The rates)
  2. The family of Grant Wahl, the prominent soccer journalist who died suddenly in Qatar, said an autopsy revealed he died of a ruptured aorta. (The update)
  3. Peru's new government has declared a state of emergency amid nationwide protests in support of ousted President Pedro Castillo. The government is imposing a police state that allows searches of homes and suspends the rights of movement and assembly. (The crackdown)
  4. China announced it would stop reporting asymptomatic Covid-19 cases amid the country's largest outbreak of the virus yet. (The change)
  5. The U.S. Senate passed a bill banning the use of TikTok on government devices. (The bill)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

The Respect for Marriage Act. Yesterday, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, a bill that codifies into law national protections for same-sex and interracial couples. The House passed the bill by a 258-169 vote last week, with every Democrat and 39 Republicans voting in favor. It passed the Senate by a 61-36 vote, with 49 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting for it (Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock was absent for the vote, as were two Republicans).

Democrats pushed to pass the bill out of concern that the Supreme Court may overrule past decisions and undercut its current support for legal recognition of such marriages. The bill was unique in LGBTQ legislation in that it won support from gay rights groups as well as many religious organizations, despite the fact that many religious conservatives and congressional Republicans still oppose gay marriage.

The bill is narrowly crafted to act as a backstop for the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, known as Obergefell v. Hodges. It also repeals a 1996 U.S. law called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. It bars states from rejecting the validity of out-of-state marriages on the basis of sex, race or ethnicity, according to Reuters.

That means, for the roughly 700,000 same-sex married couples living in the United States, if the Supreme Court were to overrule Obergefell, the federal government and all states would still be obligated to recognize same sex and interracial marriages that were either legally performed in the past or are to be performed in the future, in states where they are legal.

However, the legislation did not go as far as some LGTBQ groups wanted it to. In the event the Supreme Court does overrule that precedent, it does not bar individual states from blocking same-sex or interracial marriages in the future. It also includes carve-outs to ensure that religious entities cannot be forced to provide goods and services for any marriage and protects such religious institutions from losing their tax-exempt status if they decline to recognize same-sex marriages.

Currently, there is no legal challenge to same-sex or interracial marriage before the Supreme Court, or one headed its way. Meanwhile, the public's opinion on same-sex marriage has changed dramatically in the 25 years since DOMA was passed. Just 27% of the public supported same-sex marriage in 1996, while 71% do now, according to Gallup.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to this bill from the left and right, then my take. You can find our previous coverage of this bill here.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on the legislation, with some saying it is a proposal worth celebrating and others saying it didn't go far enough.
  • Some celebrate it as a major step forward to provide a backstop against any future Supreme Court decisions.
  • Others say there were better alternatives and the bill's protections are too limited.

The Washington Post editorial board called it a "modest proposal worth celebrating."

"The bill is essentially an insurance policy to, as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) put it, assuage the 'anxieties and fears' of same-sex and interracial couples after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Justice Clarence Thomas cultivated these concerns in a concurrence indicating his desire for the Supreme Court to reexamine previous rights-enshrining rulings, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which today requires all states to issue same-sex marriage licenses," the board wrote. "The RMA... doesn’t include that same requirement. This means that if the justice gets his wish, the 35 states that have same-sex marriage bans still on the books can begin to deny licenses again. The good news, however, is plentiful. The chances that the Supreme Court would overturn Obergefell seem low, considering the lack of interest shown by the other conservatives on the court.

"And the RMA does ensure that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages no matter what the judiciary decides," the board added. "More than that, it mandates that even states with bans recognize marriages made in states without. This is understandably unsatisfying to many couples, who rightly believe that they should be allowed to say their vows wherever they choose, rather than have to travel across borders for the official proceeding. But it is far preferable to depriving the couples of those benefits altogether, as happened under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had remained on the books despite being made unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and which would be formally repealed by the RMA."

Also in The Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart took a much more cynical tone, saying, "gee, thanks for this tiny step to protect my same-sex marriage."

"As an out gay man in an interracial, same-sex marriage, I’m pleased the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which will protect my five-year-old union and ensure that bigots can’t invalidate my swirl of a marriage. [But] let’s say Thomas gets his wish and Obergefell is overturned," Capehart wrote. "What the act does not do is require states to issue marriage licenses in contravention of state law; this is (for now) the province of Obergefell. So, same-sex couples living in states where they couldn’t legally marry post-Obergefell would have to go to another state where it is legal if they wanted to marry. What in the second-class-citizenship?

"And don’t get me started on the financial burden this would place on couples. The upside guaranteed by this new legislation is that once they return home, their home state would have to recognize their marriage just as it does that of heterosexual married couples. Gee, thanks," Capehart said. "Look at the religious-freedom exemptions enumerated in the RMA; that someone could use their personal beliefs to deny services to me and other LGBTQ Americans and be shielded from legal action is an insult to our dignity. The only sliver of a saving grace is that the act doesn’t make new law, but simply reiterates what’s already on the books, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

In Open Democracy, Chrissy Stroop said the bill doesn't go far enough.

"The press’s rush to sing the praises of this 'landmark' legislation obscures the fact that the new law is a minimal and defensive measure. The Equality Act, which would offer far more robust non-discrimination measures to LGBTQ Americans nationwide, has, sadly, been languishing in Congress for years. The Democratic leadership’s reasons for passing the RFMA are undoubtedly correct," Stroop wrote. "Given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Obergefell v Hodges, the 2015 precedent that established same-sex marriage rights in all American states, it was crucial to act pre-emptively to mitigate the damage. But it would be nice to see Democrats and elite pundits stating frankly that the law does not go far enough.

"When we look at the bigger picture, we are still left with the distinct possibility of state-level discrimination against same-sex couples, depending on the Supreme Court’s actions in the coming years," Stroop said. "We are going to need robust, sustained grassroots organizing to put pressure not just on politicians to fight harder for the human rights of marginalized groups, but also on politicians and the press to call right-wing Christians what they are – an unfairly privileged demographic opposed to democracy and human rights that should no longer be coddled by American society."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is also divided, with some saying the bill degrades the meaning of marriage and others arguing it could advance religious liberty.
  • Some argue redefining marriage to include same-sex couples undermines the traditional definition of the institution.
  • Others say this could advance freedoms for both sides.

Before its passage, National Review's editors called on Republicans to vote no.

"Marriage is no longer a means of harnessing the brute facts of biology into the service of children. It is purely a means to the end of the married parties’ happiness. It means whatever they want it to mean," the editors said. "Permanent, if you wish; exclusive, if you like; between people of the opposite sex, if you prefer. The older view of marriage was wiser. The original definition was based on the biological reality of sexual complementarity, one man and one woman, that works to advance a social ideal: that husbands and wives gratefully receive the children their unions beget, and that all family members take seriously their obligations to one another. When this works well, societies flourish. When it doesn’t, they suffer.

"Our marriage culture is ailing, with children routinely born out of wedlock, high levels of household instability, and falling rates of marriage and childbirth. Same-sex marriage, which was not long ago advertised as a cure for the weaknesses of modern marriage — remember the 'conservative case for same-sex marriage' — has, at minimum, failed to arrest these trends," they wrote. "At worst, it has further clouded our culture’s understanding of what marriage is. To prefer the old definition is not to disregard same-sex partners whose love, loyalty, and friendship are deep and enduring. But their interests could have been accommodated without redefining marriage, and in principle still could be."

In Deseret, Hal Boyd said the bill could be used as a vehicle for protecting religious freedom.

"This act does not curtail the religious freedoms already provided under the Constitution and federal law. This may seem like a yawn, but in fact it’s important for reaffirming the religious freedom protections applicable under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, namely that 'Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.' If a church, or religious school, refuses to hold a same-sex wedding or related celebration, there is no 'cause of action' — meaning no one can sue," Boyd said. "Churches or religious schools would not be required to perform or house or cater same-sex weddings. End of story.

"Some have asked whether this language would cover someone like Jack Phillips, the cake baker from Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding," Boyd said. "It doesn’t apply to non-state actors, such as Phillips. And the reality is that Phillips won his own Supreme Court case... One of the most important passages reads as follows: '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.' ... Codifying these words into federal law matter[s] for a simple reason: they reject the notion that believers in traditional marriage and their religious practices are based on bad or dishonorable motives."

In Newsweek, Brad Polumbo, the founder of Based Politics, wrote supportively of the bill.

"Passage of the Respect for Marriage Act should be a relatively uncontroversial development; after all, even a majority of Republicans now support gay marriage. Yet in some corners of the political Right, critics are still digging their heels in and viciously opposing the bill, pushing alarmist arguments about how it supposedly 'endangers religious liberty'... These arguments are utterly unfounded in reality," he wrote. "GOP Senators Thom Tillis and Rob Portman drafted amendments that explicitly ensure that the bill does not do anything to 'diminish or repeal' any of the current federal protections for religious freedom, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"Their amendment also explicitly ensures that nonprofit religious organizations will not be forced 'to provide any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage' and that the eligibility of nonprofits for tax-exempt status would not be affected by this legislation," he wrote. "So there's really no substance behind the claim that this legislation somehow targets or demonizes religious Americans. In fact, it explicitly includes language recognizing the good-faith differences in views and values that Americans have on these issues, and is very explicit not to undermine any federal religious protections."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • This is the best of a pluralistic society.
  • We have to accept the tension between these two groups, and celebrate when legislation advances both of their rights.
  • It's a necessary bill worthy of praise.

Earlier this week, I was recording one of the Tangle reader interviews that we are going to publish in January — an experiment for me to sit down and talk to randomly chosen readers of this newsletter about their lives and beliefs. At the end of the podcast, I asked my guest if they had any questions for me; and, roughly speaking, they asked about my worldview. What grounding principles do I apply to my politics and to Tangle?

It's a very big question. And I gave a kind of long, meandering answer about the intersections of empathy and limited government, the laudable moral ideals of the United States and their incredibly flawed execution. If I could go back and answer again, though, I think I'd say that a very core component of my worldview is that living in a pluralistic society is inherently messy, difficult, and will ultimately be displeasing to most of the parties involved on some level. We all need to enter every political debate in our country with that understanding.

At the same time, though, striving to make that pluralistic society functional — to coexist with respect and empathy and an abundance of opportunity all in a way that allows basic freedoms to thrive — that is a beautiful and high-minded ideal worth fighting for.

It would be easier, of course, to live in a country where everyone was a devout Christian or everyone was unmoored from faith. It would also be a lot more boring, a lot less special, and frankly a lot less humanly possible. The reality is that we live in a country where millions of people are dedicated to sincerely held religious views that frame marriage in one way, while millions of other people are asking to live their lives honestly, freely, and equally in ways that buck such a view. And we live under a legal system that promises to protect both viewpoints.

Framed this way, it's hard to imagine a piece of legislation that does a better job of walking the line than The Respect for Marriage Act. Do my personal beliefs make me think the bill could have gone further to protect same-sex marriages at the state level without infringing on certain guarantees of religious liberty? Yes. Did I expect that to be the case in a country passionately devoted to incrementalism and deeply divided in its legislative bodies? No.

The vast majority of Americans recognize that same-sex couples deserve the same respect and protection under the law, and should be able to pursue marriage when they opt to. Thanks to this widely-held public opinion, the Supreme Court's rulings, and our Constitution, that is the current state of affairs. I do not believe Obergefell is truly in jeopardy. There is no actual movement at the state level to overturn it, and there is a single justice — of nine — who seems remotely interested in re-litigating it. This is good, and I hope it stays this way.

For now, the Respect for Marriage Act offers an important piece of security to same-sex couples across the country while also restating several important truths: Religious objectors to same-sex marriage can't and shouldn't be forced into endorsing or participating in same-sex marriages; objectors are capable of having faith-based objections to a more inclusive definition of marriage; there is a difference between the necessity of government recognition of same-sex marriage (which we should have) and the necessity for private individuals to recognize same-sex marriages (which we cannot coerce).

This is why there is one single bill that is getting the endorsement of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was being pushed by prominent gay Republicans, and is being embraced by many LGBTQ rights groups across the country.

This is what a functioning, pluralistic society looks like. This is what bipartisanship looks like. This is the kind of legislation that simultaneously enhances the rights of two competing groups while diminishing the standing of neither. It's a uniquely American bill, and a uniquely functional one. We should celebrate it.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What are your thoughts about the Congress recently passing a law that basically says that people in the military do not necessarily have to get the COVID-19 shot? There also seems to be a provision in the works about reinstating the 8,000+ members who were released for noncompliance of the lawful order and a suggestion that they would get their full back pay. I’m wondering if that sets a precedent for noncompliance with lawful orders and whether or not that would be considered dangerous in a military situation.

— Mike from Meredith, New Hampshire

Tangle: I'm probably not the best person to ask, since I was always pretty opposed to vaccine mandates from the government. I think private companies have the right to institute such mandates, and certainly had cause to in the beginning of the pandemic. I do not think such mandates should come from the federal government. That makes this case particularly interesting, since it's the government making a decision about its own employees — members of the military.

Given vaccine rates and the number of people who have had Covid already, and the immunity we know having the virus provides, I don't think a military mandate is really necessary anymore (if it ever was). There is an argument, of course, that if military members — who spend an inordinate amount of time in close quarters — are testing positive for Covid, it impacts their preparedness. Which is true. And is also why some military leaders want the vaccine, objectors be damned. But it's also true that being vaccinated doesn't prevent you from getting the virus, it mostly improves your health outcomes and reduces severity of symptoms.

Finally, it's also important to contextualize the stakes here. The bill wasn't a narrow vaccine mandate legislation. It included the entire military budget, new rules about reporting sexual assault cases, and funding for the defense of Taiwan and Ukraine. Democrats had a decision to make about whether to allow the mandate to be rescinded or watch the entire bill get tanked. I think they chose correctly.

As for precedent, I'm not sure it changes much. Military members who objected to the mandate and refused to get vaccinated are not coming out ahead here. They suffered by losing their jobs and pay for the last year or two. If the government remedies that it will of course be some consolation for them, but I don't think the lesson coming out of this ordeal is  that rejecting lawful orders is now somehow more permissible.

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Under the radar.

Officials with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California have declared a regional drought emergency for the entire southern portion of the state, asking water agencies to immediately reduce their use of imported supplies. The announcement comes eight months after officials declared a similar emergency for 7 million people dependent on supplies from the State Water project which sends water from northern California. This emergency is tied to the lack of water in the Colorado River, which brings in much of the out-of-state supply.

“Conditions on the Colorado River are growing increasingly dire,” MWD Chairwoman Gloria Gray said in a statement. “We simply cannot continue turning to that source to make up the difference in our limited state supplies. In addition, three years of California drought are drawing down our local storage.” The Los Angeles Times has the story.


  • 94%. The percentage of Americans who approve of interracial marriage.
  • 4%. The percentage who approved when Gallup first asked the question in 1958.
  • 71%. The percentage of Americans who approve of same-sex marriages.
  • 48%. The percentage of Americans who approved of same-sex marriage in 2012.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans that are weekly churchgoers and say they approve of same-sex marriage.
  • 82%. The percentage of Americans that seldom or never go to church and say they approve of same-sex marriage.

Have a nice day.

Two years ago, the ninth-largest meteor ever to hit earth was discovered by westerners in Somalia. But locals say it is much older. They call the stone "Nightfall" and have documented it in poems, songs and dances that go back five generations. Now, the magical story of Nightfall is being taken to the next level. Canadian scientists examining a 70 gram sample they took from the 15-ton meteorite say it contains two new, never-before-observed minerals. They've named them elaliite and elkinstantonite. A third, yet-to-be identified mineral is still being analyzed by researchers. BBC News has the fascinating story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.