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Biden signs Respect for Marriage Act, reflecting his and the country's evolution

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk through the Cross Hall of the White House lit with rainbow colors following an event commemorating LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the East Room last year.
Chip Somodevilla
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President Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk through the Cross Hall of the White House lit with rainbow colors following an event commemorating LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the East Room last year.

Updated December 13, 2022 at 4:36 PM ET

President Biden signed into law Tuesday a bipartisan bill that codifies same-sex and interracial marriages with a large celebration on the South Lawn of the White House.

The president spoke before a crowd of thousands gathered to celebrate the federal protections in the Respect for Marriage Act.

"The road to this moment has been long, but those who believe in equality and justice – you never gave up," Biden said.

That long road is one Biden and the country have been on together. In 2004, just 42% of Americans said they were in support of same-sex marriage, according to Gallup. Today, it's 68%, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll to be released Thursday.

A dozen Republican senators (out of 50) and 39 Republican House members (out of 208) voted in favor of the legislation. That's far from a majority of Republicans, and it's reflective of the fact that rank-and-file Republican voters have lagged in support of same-sex marriage.

In 2004, according to Gallup, just 19% of Republicans were in favor. This week's NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found now that number has more than doubled to 43%, but is still shy of a majority.

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A massive cultural shift on interracial marriage

When it comes to interracial marriage, the country has seen a wholesale change in public opinion and societal acceptance since 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that prohibitions on interracial marriages were unconstitutional.

In 1958, when Gallup first asked the question, just 4% said they approved of marriage between Black people and white people. Through the mid-'90s, Americans were still split on the subject.

But by the late-'90s and early 2000s, support for interracial marriage soared and, by 2021, approval hit a sky-high 94%.

Back in 1967, just 3% of Americans were in interracial marriages. That's up to 11% overall and 19% of newlyweds, as of last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Biden's evolution on gay rights and same-sex marriage

On almost no other issue has American public opinion shifted so dramatically so quickly. Biden, who has a grandchild who identifies as LGBTQ, is included in that evolution.

In 1973, as a young senator, a gay rights activist confronted Biden about discriminatory federal regulations. Biden was taken aback.

"My gut reaction is they are security risks," Biden said of people who were gay in the military and Civil Service, "but I'll admit, I haven't given this much thought."

In the 1990s, like many other senators, Biden cast a series of votes that hurt the push for gay rights — from cutting off funding from public schools that were "encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative" to the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. DOMA defined marriage as between a man and a woman and blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Now, as president, Biden rebuked the Florida law that constrains teachers talking about sexual orientation or gender identity, calling it "hateful" and vowed to "continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve."

And his signing of the Respect for Marriage Act Tuesday repeals DOMA.

It's been quite the turnabout — and really it's come in the last 10 years.

During the 2008 campaign, Biden, as former President Barack Obama's running mate, affirmed in a vice-presidential debate, "No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage."

It was a delicate line the Democrats were walking then. In 2004, the issue of same-sex marriage was a lightning rod. Anti-same-sex marriage amendments were put on various state ballots. Then-President George W. Bush backed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and white Christian evangelicals helped Bush win reelection.

Democrats had moved toward the half-measure of civil unions — giving legal rights to gay couples, but, largely because of the politics, were not ready to come out fully in support of "marriage."

All that changed with Biden in 2012.

As vice president, Biden got out ahead of President Obama in advocating for same-sex marriage — on national television.

Marriage is about "who do you love?" Biden said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And will you be loyal to the person you love? ... whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals."

He continued: "Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."

With that, Biden endeared himself to the LGBTQI+ community and pushed Obama to publicly embrace the position.

Days later, Obama went on ABC's Good Morning America, saying Biden's "probably got a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity of spirit."

"Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without there being a lot of notice to everybody?" Obama said. "Sure, but all's well that ends well."

Biden's appearance came at something of an inflection point. This was in an election year and at a time when the country was still split on acceptance of same-sex marriage. Three days before he went on Meet the Press, Gallup found 50% of Americans approved of same-sex marriage.

Afterward, support continued to rise. In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in the Obergefell case that same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected by the 14th Amendment.

That night, the White House lit up in rainbow colors.

What the bill does and doesn't do

For advocates of the Respect for Marriage Act and the White House, Tuesday was a big day. But the bill's potential impact is limited.

"No, I am not celebrating," Jim Obergefell, of the Obergefell case that won the right to same-sex marriage, said on CNN.

This bill does not guarantee the right to marry. It makes it so that other states have to recognize same-sex marriages across state lines and that same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits of any other married couple, like Social Security survivor benefits.

"I will say I'm happy that at least something has been done, something that we will have to fall back on should the Supreme Court overturn Obergefell in the future, but this act, I find it curious that it's called the Respect for Marriage Act because this act does not respect LGBTQ+ community, our marriages, our relationships or our families."

That's because, though the bill attempts to buttress key Supreme Court decisions, it does nothing to prevent same-sex marriages from becoming illegal again in states that might oppose them if the Supreme Court decides to overturn Obergefell.

The potential for its overturning was the impetus for passing the Respect for Marriage Act in the first place. In the Dobbs decision, which overturned the right to an abortion earlier this year, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court "should reconsider" decisions that legalized same-sex marriage and even protected the rights of married people to have access to contraception.

As NPR has reported:

"If the Court were to overturn Obergefell, the legality of same-sex marriages would revert to state law — and the majority of states would prohibit it. The Respect for Marriage Act wouldn't change that, but it requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and federally recognizes these marriages."

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But others see this as an important step to be celebrated.

"We saw after the Dobbs decision, that in so many ways, too many of our rights are just one Supreme Court decision from being lost," Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told NPR's All Things Considered Monday. "As a queer woman, as a queer woman of color in this country, who's married, I was worried that at some point that the courts would also invalidate my marriage. Now, I'm relieved because that's not the case. Congress has taken action to ensure that our marriages are valid, that our love will be respected."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.