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How Republicans got on board with the Respect for Marriage Act

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congress has given final passage to the Respect for Marriage Act. It mandates that all states should recognize same-sex marriages. Now, when President Biden signs this law, as he is expected to do, it will change nothing for now because the Supreme Court has found a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution, but should the court's conservative majority ever rule otherwise, this law would be in place to set a federal standard. It was a bipartisan bill, for the most part. It could not have passed the Senate without some Republican support. And in the House, 39 Republicans joined Democrats in voting yes. That's only about a fifth of the Republicans, but 39 of them.

Former Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen supported this legislation when she was in Congress representing Florida, and she lobbied for it now that she's out. And she's on the line. Welcome to the program.

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Hey, Steve. Good morning. Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: How hard has it been over the years to bring your fellow Republicans, or at least some of them, on board with this idea?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, this has been one of those social issues that has really moved quickly through the American landscape. Once upon a time, you know, we had "don't ask, don't tell" and so many other policies related to marriage inequality and people not living their true selves. So it's really moved fast, and the Republican Party has moved along with it. I co-chair a group called Conservatives Against Discrimination, and we work with another organization, Centerline Action. Ken Mehlman and Reginald Brown, both from Bush 43 White House, both on all of these conservative groups. And we had a quiet campaign to try to get folks online, and, boy, it's really been a massive, positive movement. And I thank all of the Republicans who voted for it - 12 senators and 39 House members. That's really phenomenal.

INSKEEP: Right. Although let's be clear here - that is a minority of Republicans in both the House and the Senate. You're correct that some Republicans have taken what seems to be the country's majority view on this, that same-sex marriage is a right. But why do you think a majority of your party resists?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that they unwisely and incorrectly gauged the nonsupport of their constituents back home, and they're worried about that, that narrow wing of the Republican Party that is - will not - will never accept marriage equality. But actually, all the polls have indicated - the Gallup poll from just a little bit ago, 71% of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, saying they support same-sex marriage. And each of these House members and their Senate colleagues in recent weeks, they looked at clear public trends inside their states.

So now it's 12 senators and 39 House members, but if we ever had to do it again - and, of course, we don't because now it's codified - it is the law. But you will have more and more Republicans. They're coming that way. They think their constituents will not accept this view, but we show the poll, and there's broad-based support among members of my own party.

INSKEEP: I bet there has been an occasion - almost inevitably would be - you'd be talking with someone who is a Republican lawmaker who feels that same-sex marriage is simply immoral, is against their moral or religious beliefs. And this is kind of a deep question about democracy, really. What is the case you would make to someone in which you would say, I understand that you feel that this is immoral and utterly wrong, and yet I believe that in a republic, you need to accept it anyway? How do you make that case?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think we can make a good case for it. We need to take stock of the fact that what we witnessed on the floor of the House was historic, and it's a historic moment for the sanctity of marriage, for strong families, for religious liberty in America. It is not that it does away with the fabric of marriage or American fabric. No, it strengthens it. And I think that people are coming to understand that they have someone in their own family or someone with whom they work or someone who is - even someone in their church who may be gay and who is in a same-sex relationship.

And there's so many people who we think are of this garden variety or this other piece of salad, and you find out, oh, my gosh, you know, this salad works together, and this tomato and this lettuce - and, oh, it's a delicious salad. We all come from different places, and we're all different people, and we've got to be more accepting of others who are unlike ourselves.

INSKEEP: You mentioned...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Not everybody's like you and me.

INSKEEP: You mentioned people in your family - people will know; some will know - your son is a transgender LGBTQ advocate. Given that, what do you make of the direction of your party on trans issues right now?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, that's going to be the next goal. You know, we've got to understand that not everyone who is born in a certain gender is still identifying with that gender. That will be a tougher nut to crack, and it will seem right now that it will be impossible. But knowing and understanding my son Rigo, born a man that - now identifies as a transgender male, and we came to terms with that as a family. And I come from a pretty conservative Cuban American family, and even my 80-year-old father, before he passed away, he understood those changes. So things happen in every family, and we've got to be understanding and accepting. We love our children no matter what - unconditional love.

INSKEEP: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, thank you so much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you, Steve. Have a great day.

INSKEEP: She's a former Republican member of Congress and co-chair of a group called Conservatives Against Discrimination. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.