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Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act into law

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, President Joe Biden signed into law a landmark piece of legislation that recognizes same sex and interracial marriages.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For most of our nation's history, we denied interracial couples and same-sex couples from these protections. We failed. We failed to treat them with equal dignity and respect. And now the law requires that interracial marriage and same-sex marriage must be recognized as legal in every state in the nation.

SHAPIRO: This is the kind of celebration we would not have seen at the White House a decade ago. To talk about Biden's evolution and the country's, we turn to NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with President Biden's evolution on same-sex-marriage. He has had a long career in politics. How have his views changed over time?

MONTANARO: Yeah, and they have changed. I mean, the president is someone who went from, in the 1990s, for example, voting in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, to pushing for this bill, the Respect for Marriage Act, which repeals DOMA. You know, here was Biden in 2008 during the vice presidential nominees debate. Asking the question is the late journalist Gwen Ifill.

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GWEN IFILL: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that.

MONTANARO: But just four years later - not that long - here was Biden on NBC's "Meet The Press."

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BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.

MONTANARO: I mean, it's quite the turnabout. You know, and this was a seminal moment for Biden's position and the country's. And it essentially forced President Obama just days after that to take the same stance and change the conversation on same-sex marriage.

SHAPIRO: That was such a quick turnaround. What led to that rapid evolution?

MONTANARO: For one, public opinion was moving. You know, Democrats had been really delicately walking this line, many calling for civil unions, but not marriage explicitly after George W. Bush in 2004 used the issue as a way to fire up the evangelical right, which helped him get reelected. You know, by 2012, though, the country was in a pretty different place. The split was, you know, still there was a split trending toward support. And Biden, you know, as he's known to do, spoke pretty bluntly.

Since then, the shift, though, has been dramatic. Our latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which is going to be released Thursday, shows 68% are in favor of same-sex marriage. You know, it was still a bit of a surprise. I have to say, though, that the bill got through because it wasn't clear they could get the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster because Republicans really have been much slower to embrace same-sex marriage. But a dozen Republican senators voted for it, 39 Republicans in the House did, too. And it's really reflective of how the country, even Republicans, are changing, even though GOP support, you know, has been much less in our surveys, less than a majority.

SHAPIRO: All right. We've been describing this as now a law that protects same-sex and interracial marriage. Beyond that top line, explain exactly what it does and does not do.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Not everyone's celebrating this as the be all, end all - and it's not. You know, this was largely passed because of the threat that the conservative supermajority at the Supreme Court after the Dobbs ruling that took away the right to an abortion, you know, could overturn other rights, including same-sex marriage. You know, while this bill gives federal benefits to same-sex couples, make sure those marriages are recognized across state lines, it doesn't guarantee that states won't deny marriage licenses to gay couples again if the court overturns it. You know, and I have to say, one of the most overlooked things in this bill, you know, isn't just about same-sex marriage, but also interracial marriages. Easy to overlook because 94% in the latest polling say they approve, but majorities didn't approve until the late 1990s, which isn't that long ago for some of us.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.