Alaska’s two U.S. senators vote to advance federal same-sex marriage protections

a man in a shirt and tie behind a table
Sen. Dan Sullivan, seen here in January 2021, joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski and 10 other Senate Republicans in voting to advance a bill intended to protect same-sex and interracial marriage rights. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

Alaska’s two U.S. senators voted on Wednesday in favor of ending debate on a bill intended to protect same-sex and interracial marriage rights, advancing the bill toward final passage in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, joined 10 other Republicans and all 50 Democratic Senators on a “cloture” vote needed to end debate. The final vote was 62-37, making final passage — which requires just 51 votes — certain.

After the vote, President Joe Biden urged members of Congress to finish work and send it to his desk.

If signed into law, the bill would not have a significant immediate effect; same-sex marriage rights were guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2015 decision.

Earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should re-examine that decision. His remarks sparked congressional action.

If the bill becomes law and the Supreme Court reverses its 2015 decision, states would be allowed to choose whether to ban same-sex marriage but would be required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and those performed in their states when the practice was legal. 

In Alaska, the state constitution still contains an amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage; that amendment has been legally suspended since 2014 but could be reactivated if the Supreme Court reverses itself.

The bill also requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages. It reverses Clinton-era legislation that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. 

Wednesday’s vote came after a slightly different version of the bill passed the U.S. House in July. The Senate postponed consideration until after the midterm elections.

Part of the reason for the delay was the need to gain more support from Senate Republicans. While Murkowski was among a handful of Republicans who indicated that they would vote for the House’s bill, others, including Sullivan, said they were likely to oppose it.

That presented a problem for supporters, who needed at least 10 Republican votes to advance the bill.

To garner those votes, supporters amended the bill and added provisions stating that religious organizations are not required to host, accommodate or participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. 

The bill adds a legal shield preventing lawsuits against those organizations if they refuse to host same-sex weddings.

Ben Dietderich, a spokesperson for Sullivan, said that component was the result of research by Sullivan’s staff and others, and its inclusion was key.

“By doing that, it secured the senator’s vote, and I think it also helped get other Republicans on board as well,” Dietderich said.

In a prepared written statement, Sullivan said that he continues to believe the bill is unnecessary because of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision but believes the religion-related provisions are worth supporting.

“While I’ve long held that marriage should be an issue left up to the states, the Supreme Court nationalized the issue in Obergefell. I said then that I would respect the Court’s decision, but would also continue to fight for and respect and defend the religious liberty of all Americans. This bill makes important advances in doing that,” Sullivan said. “Finally, in the very unlikely event that Obergefell is overturned in the future, this bill would still respect state laws, like Alaska’s constitutional provision on traditional marriage, and it would only require states to provide full faith and credit recognition to all lawful marriages from other states.”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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