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Same-sex couples wary despite federal marriage rights bill

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Mary and Sharon Bishop-Baldwin were jubilant after winning a decadelong fight for the right to wed in Oklahoma.

But eight years after tying the knot — on the day they won their lawsuit challenging a state ban on gay marriage — and seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed same-sex couples’ constitutional right to marry, they no longer take their union for granted.

While they’re happy that Congress is moving swiftly to ensure nationwide recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages, they — like many in LGBTQ communities — are frustrated it’s even necessary after so many years and are unsure whether it’s enough.

“The very fact we’re even having these conversations is really disheartening to me,” especially given a dramatic shift in public opinion over the past decade, with polls showing 70% of U.S. adults now favor same-sex marriage rights, said Sharon Bishop-Baldwin, 54.

But when the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed abortion rights, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in a concurring opinion that the decision upholding gay marriage should also be reconsidered. That prompted Democrats to act quickly to protect same-sex marriage while the party still holds the majority in both chambers of Congress.

The Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act last week with support from 12 Republicans; it’s expected to easily win approval in the House before being signed by President Joe Biden.

At first, Sharon Bishop-Baldwin said, she thought the act was “lip service.” But she changed her mind because it would at least provide some protection.

“It’s ridiculous to think that anybody in this country who has legally married one place could suddenly be unmarried in another,” Bishop-Baldwin said.

When the couple filed their 2004 Oklahoma lawsuit, 76% of state voters had just approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Ten years later, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a federal appeals court ruling that declared the state ban unconstitutional. A year later, the high court decided in another case that all states had to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

“When we won, one of our lawyers said, ‘This is game, set, match, marriage’ … and that’s what we thought: We’re done,” said Bishop-Baldwin, who runs a small newspaper and met her wife in 1995 when both were editors at the Tulsa World.

The legislation wouldn’t codify, or enshrine into law, the Supreme Court decision requiring states to issue same-sex marriage licenses. But if that decision were overturned and states revived bans, they still would have to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.

“I can’t imagine that happening at the Supreme Court … but we have to be prepared,” said Mary Bishop-Baldwin, 61, who notes that Oklahoma’s ban is still on the books.

The possibility has created “a state of extreme anxiety and stress” among same-sex couples, said Jenny Pizer, chief legal officer at Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights group.

That’s especially true for those with children, she said. Currently, both spouses are considered legal parents, which is especially important if one of them dies or they divorce. “So this bill really does matter,” Pizer said.

Some also fear the high court or a future Congress could undo the federal legislation.

“Every time the House and Senate overturn, you’ll wonder what might happen this time,” said Dawn Betts-Green, 43, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her wife, Anna Green, whom she married in Florida in 2016. “It’s honestly in the hands of whoever we elect, and that is scary.”

A scenario in which constitutional protections are overturned by the Supreme Court and the Respect for Marriage Act is overturned by the court or Congress might be a long shot, but “it is certainly possible for there to be a series of events that really took us back to that earlier time when it was incredibly difficult for families,” Pizer said.

“The idea of returning to those days, frankly, is terrifying,” she said.

Betts-Green and her wife hurried to complete paperwork, such as wills and powers of attorney, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, getting “all of our legal ducks in a row (because) they’re clearly coming for us,” she said, recalling a time when her wife was hospitalized in Florida — before they were married — and a nurse said Betts-Green would not be permitted to make medical decisions.

Marriage also provides many other legal protections, including the ability to claim survivor benefits from Social Security and to obtain health insurance through a spouse’s plan, and tax benefits, such as the ability to leave assets to a spouse.

The Respect for Marriage Act makes Betts-Green feel a little more secure, she said, though “I find it absolutely ridiculous that we’re having to go through this kind of thing in 2022, not only just for queer people, but also interracial marriages. It’s not 1941, but it certainly feels like we’ve gone back in time.”

The issue of same-sex marriage also is overshadowing other concerns, including anti-LGBTQ legislation and harassment of and attacks on LGBTQ people, most notably the recent shooting at a Colorado nightclub that killed five people, Betts-Green said.

“I’m constantly reminded that this is the least of our issues in a lot of ways,” she said.

Minneapolis legal aide Robbin Reed, a white woman who is married to a Black transgender man, supports the act but worries it could mean more danger from people who might be angered by its protections.

“The law won’t really change anything about my life … because there’s still so much to worry about,” said Reed, who has an 8-month-old child and performs with her husband in queer nightclubs. “This is a ridiculous situation to be in.”

The Bishop-Baldwins said they doubt the Supreme Court will strip away same-sex marriage rights, but are relieved there will be some protections in place just in case. Still, federal legislation shouldn’t even be required, they say.

“Is the Respect for Marriage Act good enough? No, of course not. Good enough should be” constitutional protection, said Sharon Bishop-Baldwin.

Betts-Green said nothing would surprise her now: “You can never really be comfortable.”

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