Murkowski, Sullivan support same-sex marriage bill, for different reasons

man standing at a microphone
Sen. Dan Sullivan in Anchorage in July 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to protect same-sex marriage, with the support of both Alaskan senators, though U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan considers it a religious liberty bill.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, as she went into the Senate chamber to vote, said the bill provides certainty to gay couples that their marriages will be recognized nationwide.

“I have have long maintained that marriage should be recognized in a way and in a manner that recognizes that love between two persons,” she said.

Sullivan slipped into the chamber without stopping to talk to reporters. He later issued a statement saying he voted yes because the bill protects the freedom of religious groups to only recognize “traditional marriage.”

The bill “is much more about promoting and expanding religious liberty protections than same-sex marriage,” Sullivan’s statement says.

The legislation passed with 61 votes, one more than needed. Murkowski and Sullivan were among 12 Republicans who voted yes.

The Respect for Marriage bill says states can’t, on the bases of race or gender, reject a valid marriage license issued in another state. To win over enough Republicans, it also says religious nonprofits can refuse to provide services to celebrate same-sex marriages.

The bipartisan vote reflects how far the nation has moved in a few decades on this issue. The bill repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limited federal recognition of marriage to opposite-sex partners. It passed Congress by an overwhelming margin in 1996.

The Supreme Court invalidated that definition in 2015 with a decision called Obergefell v. Hodges, making gay marriage legal nationwide. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote this summer that the court could revisit that decision, setting off a scramble among gay rights advocates, among others, to put marriage protections in federal law.

Sullivan, in his statement, said he disagreed with the Obergefell decision. His statement is silent on whether he personally supports marriage rights for gay couples.

His reasons for supporting the bill did not convince Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, a right-wing Christian advocacy group.

“Sen. Sullivan just let us down in a big way,” Minnery said in an emailed statement after the vote.

The new bill, the Respect for Marriage Act, goes next to the House, where it’s expected to pass easily.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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