NASHVILLE — U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee were among 39 Republicans who voted this week against passage of a historic bill to provide federal protection for same-sex and interracial marriages.
Despite the no votes cast by the two Tennessee lawmakers as well as fellow Republican Sens. Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, the Respect for Marriage Act passed on a 61-39 vote and is widely seen as on track to win approval next week in the Democratic-led House, which earlier this year passed a similar measure.
The legislation seeks to enshrine prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions legalizing same-sex and interracial marriages. Democrats argued it was necessary given the high court's decision in June that struck down the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
In his concurring opinion to strike down Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote justices should "reconsider all of this court's substantive due process precedents," a list that would include same-sex marriage rulings and the court's 1967 decision striking down states' laws banning interracial marriages.
Hagerty said in a statement that the Respect for Marriage Act isn't needed.
"The Supreme Court has already ordered what this bill seeks to accomplish," Hagerty said. "Rather, it provides new avenues to exploit for litigation and government enforcement actions against Americans for genuinely-held religious beliefs in the traditional definition of marriage.
"The bill's failure to adequately protect religious liberties is magnified by the Biden administration's track record of using government power to target its political opponents," Hagerty said.
Asked about Blackburn's no vote, a spokesperson for the senator called it "unfortunate that the Senate could not agree on any of the measures that would help protect religious freedom for Tennesseans."
The bill repeals the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 2006 law still on the books that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled the law was unconstitutional in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
Obergefell also invalidated a 2006 Tennessee constitutional amendment, approved by voters here, which banned same-sex marriage. But if the Supreme Court struck down Obergefell, the new legislation, if approved by the U.S. House, would guarantee federal recognition of any marriage between two people if the union was valid in the state where they married.
Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders, whose organization advocates for the LGBTQ community, said by phone Wednesday, "I wish we'd had the support of our two U.S. senators. But this bill is a significant step forward in protecting marriage in Tennessee."
Sanders noted the Respect for Marriage Act will "not prevent the (state) legislature from acting against marriage equality. But it still gives people a path in Tennessee to protect their marriages."
Elaborating, Sanders said if Obergefell were overturned, Tennessee legislators could refuse to provide licenses to same-sex couples if they choose to do that.
"But what they could not do is fail to recognize marriages lawfully conducted in other jurisdictions," Sanders added. "For example, a Tennessean who got married in Washington, D.C., or Vermont, Tennessee would still have to recognize your marriage."
Among those voting for the Respect for Marriage Act was U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia.
"The right to choose our spouse, to choose the person with whom we start a family, is fundamental," Ossoff wrote in a tweet. "Democrats and Republicans came together to advance human freedom."
A dozen Republican senators voted for the measure, among them Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, while 39 GOP senators voted no. Two Republicans did not vote.
Absent from Tuesday's Senate vote was Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Warnock is locked in a runoff campaign against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Early voting in the contest ends Friday. The general election is Tuesday.
Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act drew criticism from Brent Leatherwood, president of the Nashville-based Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"At a moment when the U.S. Senate could be focusing on significant policies like pro-life protections in the budget or developing a permanent solution for Dreamers or help for our Afghan neighbors, senators instead move a bill that wasn't needed and raises legitimate concerns for people of faith," Leatherwood said in a statement. "Marriage was created, by God, for our flourishing. He gave it a specific design as a covenant union between one man and one woman for life."
Leatherwood said the government, regardless of any law or action, "cannot change what it did not create." He added that while new challenges may arise because of this, the task before believers remains the same.
"Articulate and embody a Christian vision for a culture awash in confusion about marriage," Leatherwood said.