WASHINGTON, D.C. — There was an outdoor celebration at the White House this week, and University of Illinois College of Law Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson accepted her invitation.
Mingling on the South Lawn was a blend of gay couples, faith groups, social conservatives and drag queens, treated to the music of Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper.
“I felt like I was at a concert,” said Wilson, director of the UI System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “It was just jubilant, it was a joy to be there to watch so many people happy.”
That day, the Respect for Marriage Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden, requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages and interracial marriages, while upholding several religious liberty protections. Wilson’s legal expertise played a hand in its passage.
With fellow religious liberty scholars Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas and Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri, Wilson co-authored a letter to Sens. Tammy Baldwin, R-Wisconsin, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, assuring the bill would be an “advance” for religious liberty with the amendment the two lawmakers proposed.
While codifying marriage protections across state lines, the bill also confirms that nonprofit religious organizations won’t be required to provide any services, facilities or goods for the solemnization of a same-sex marriage.
These dual protections follow the legislative template this group of scholars developed in nine other states and D.C., which all protected same-sex marriages before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision federally guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry, Wilson said.
“The (Respect for Marriage Act) is saying to interracial and same-sex couples, if Obergefell ever falls, you don’t have to worry about your marriage,” Wilson said. “It turns around in the same statute and says to religious believers: If this kind of protection is given to LGBT couples, you also don’t have to worry, because you’re not going to be made to facilitate their relationship.”
Their letter was cited repeatedly during Senate floor debate — the bill passed the Senate 62-37 on Nov. 29, securing 12 Republicans votes. The bill earned the endorsements of more than 40 religious groups and organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I was proud of America, we just came out of midterm elections, where it seems like we had razor thin margins, where you go to Thanksgiving dinners and people don’t want to talk about politics,” Wilson said. “Then you watch this, within weeks, and you go: maybe we’re not as divided as everyone wants to believe. Maybe we still have the capacity to cross aisles.
“And maybe we can remember that even if we disagree on an issue, we can see the humanity of the person that has a need that’s not unlike our own.”
Wilson said she’s pushed back on claims of the Respect for Marriage Act being a “messaging” bill. Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence in the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe v. Wade called for the Supreme Court to “reconsider” the legal basis of the Obergefell decision, which rests on the same due process precedent.
His concurrence created an “enormous impetus” to secure the right to marry for LGBTQ+ couples, she said.
“If I read something in a Supreme Court concurrence, that’s an important piece of writing. Of course I would take that seriously,” Wilson said. “I think many people wouldn’t’ve thought that Dobbs was going to happen. I think having belts and suspenders for something that’s important to a million families in America, that’s a good thing.”