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Respect for Marriage Act resonates in Virginia

President Joe Biden speaks during a bill signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.
Patrick Semansky/AP
President Joe Biden speaks during a Tuesday bill signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington D.C. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Lifelong Virginian Christian Strange was relieved when President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law on Tuesday, codifying federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages.

Strange grew up in Virginia Beach and has lived in Norfolk since the ’90s. But when he got married in 2013, he and his husband had to travel to Maryland. At the time, the Code of Virginia and the state constitution banned same-sex marriage.

“That was a pain in the neck, but we did it,” said Strange, an insurance agent and a board member of Hampton Roads Business OutReach, an LGBTQ+ chamber of commerce.

In 2015, when the Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to same-sex couples, Strange said life went on.

“We just went on living our boring, married lives, not thinking anything of it,” he said. “In fact, we started a family, we have children now.”

For him, the big change came more recently when the Supreme Court issued a series of major rulings, including one overturning Roe v. Wade. In a concurring opinion on that decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should “reconsider” due process decisions — including Obergefell.

“That bothers me,” Strange said.

He was unsure what it would mean for his marriage if Obergefell was overruled — and what that might mean for his kids, who were conceived in vitro and carried by a surrogate.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) admitted he thought “we might not need” legislation like the RFMA, but that changed when Roe was overturned .

The Dobbs decision ... directly poses a risk that the Supreme Court would overturn the Obergefell decision and once again leave millions and millions of people who want the right to marry whom they choose at risk,” Kaine said on Dec. 8 press call.

After the RFMA was signed this week, all states and the federal government must recognize Strange’s marriage, and all legal same-sex and interracial marriages, regardless of the state of Obergefell.

“It makes me feel more comfortable, since we do have kids, that they're not going to have to live in a household that is at risk of, you know, maybe not being broken apart, but having to deal with the stress of, ‘What if?'" Strange said.

RFMA does not require states to perform same-sex marriages. Instead, U.S. states and territories have to recognize existing same-sex marriages that occurred in states where it’s legal.

“Somebody marrying in Virginia who moves to Tennessee or moves to Kansas or moves to Oregon shouldn’t have to question — if they’ve been legitimately married — whether the state they’ve moved to will recognize them or not,” Kaine said.

Strange said he's concerned with the religious exemption: Groups that don’t recognize same-sex marriage won’t have their tax-exempt status threatened under the law and aren’t required to “provide goods or services to formally recognize or celebrate a marriage.”

“In this legislation, we still are allowing religious organizations to discriminate against LGBT people or perceived LGBT people,” Strange said. “It’s in there, I think it needs to come out.”

Still, Strange is glad to not worry about his marriage’s legal status.

“People like me — we just want to get up, go to work, live our lives," Strange said. “We don’t want to worry about these types of things.”

Virginia legislators repealed state laws banning same-sex marriage in 2020. An attempt to repeal the constitutional amendment and replace it with pro-same-sex marriage language failed in 2022.

In 2014, Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban was declared unconstitutional by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Bostic v. Schaefer . Circuit Court Judge Henry Floyd wrote the majority opinion:

“We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws ... . Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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