On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) egregiously overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion and forcing millions of women, children, and pregnant people to submit to the will of their state legislatures. The effects of this attack on bodily autonomy and women’s rights have been immediate and heart-wrenching.
On another June summer day, just seven years prior, nervous anticipation built on another critical SCOTUS decision day instead flowered into celebratory cries of joy. With the publication of the Obergefell v. Hodges opinion, same-sex marriage was federally-recognized and established as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. According to the judicial archive Oyez, the court asserted that “judicial precedent has held that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty because it is inherent to the concept of individual autonomy, it protects the most intimate association between two people, it safeguards children and families by according legal recognition to building a home and raising children, and it has historically been recognized as the keystone of social order.”
The decision in Obergefell v. Hodges came just two years after United States v. Windsor, which found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 to be unconstitutional. DOMA had established marriage as between one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize valid out-of-state same-sex marriages, in turn denying benefits to same-sex couples. In Windsor, the court held that “the purpose and effect of DOMA is to impose a “disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma” on same-sex couples in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection”.
For many, it was incredible to witness two momentous wins for same-sex marriage advocates in just a few short years, after having fought for equality for decades. While the battle to ensure the LGBTQIA+ community achieves equal protection under the law is far from won, the American consensus is unambiguous: A U.S. Census Bureau report analyzing 2019 data indicates that fifty-eight percent of couples in the nation’s 980,000 same-sex households were married, and a Gallup poll from 2020 shows that over seventy percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. The aforementioned court cases ushered in an opportunity that for so long had only been afforded to opposite-sex couples: same-sex couples could get married nationwide and have their marriages be federally-recognized, and they could raise families with a sense of peace and security.
Yet, as if the sick reality of a world post-Roe was not enough, millions of women losing access to abortion is not the sole reason why the Dobbs decision is terrifying. Dobbs made crystal clear that SCOTUS can and will overturn decades of precedent and override popular sentiment to strip fundamental human rights. In fact, a member of the court made this explicit: while Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion in full, he wrote a separate concurrence stating the court “’should reconsider’ its past rulings codifying rights to contraception access, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage”.
Alarmed and well aware of Dobbs’ implications, lawmakers in the House and Senate acted quickly to introduce the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 8404 / S. 4556). The bill would repeal DOMA within federal statute, and codify in federal law the right for same-sex couples to have their marriages recognized nationwide. The Respect for Marriage Act passed the House of Representatives in July, with forty-seven Republicans voting yes in a show of bipartisan support, and now heads to the Senate for a vote projected to occur in November.
The Respect for Marriage Act would also provide statutory protections for interracial marriages found in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which cast aside state laws that banned interracial marriages and afforded equal protections to interracial couples. With the overwhelming majority of Americans supporting interracial marriage, the thought of any modern-day enactment of legal restrictions may certainly seem farfetched—but if Dobbs taught us anything, it’s that our rights are not guaranteed. If we don’t pay attention, vote, and take action in and speak out in our communities, civil and human rights as we know them will continue to be swept away.
In the dissenting opinion to Dobbs, the SCOTUS minority justices wrote a grave warning: “no one should be confident that this majority is done with its work.” As history passes before our very eyes, we will not look towards the future of our civil and human rights with a naive sense of comfort that once our rights are fought for and won, they will remain secure. We have the power to defend and advance our rights, and we must act. Take just a few minutes right away to visit the Humanist Action Headquarters to contact your Senators: demand they codify marriage equality protections into law by supporting the Respect for Marriage Act.
And most importantly, vote and register to vote. Vote in every election that you can—from city, to state, to federal. Being informed about our democratic institutions is only the first step to being a participant—civically engage yourself and others in the elections just around the corner. The American Humanist Association is excited to be partnering with organizations that are helping high school students register to vote and encouraging early voting. Learn more about how you can register and take local action here. You may also be interested in signing up as a poll worker in your locality—check out Power the Polls for more information.