What if you didn't need some judge or government bureaucrat to declare your marriage valid? What if you could just turn in the proper form and have it recorded in your state of residence indicating that you and your significant other are wed and that the state should treat you as such?
Some lawmakers in Alabama have been trying to make this change for the past couple of years, attempting to get the government out of marriage as much as they possibly can. They've failed the last two attempts, but NPR reports that Republican state Representative Paul Beckman is trying again with HB 162. The state Senate version of the bill has already passed.
Beckman's bill would eliminate marriage licenses, and it would eliminate the requirement for marriages to be "solemnized" to be considered legal. Instead, couples (and only couples in this bill) would turn in the appropriate paperwork and file it with the state declaring that they meet the requirements to be married. And that's pretty much it.
The origin of this bill is not due to a sudden embrace of different kinds of marriage among the conservatives in Alabama's legislature. Rather, it's an attempt to try to appease opponents of same-sex marriage recognition. While the Supreme Court may have mandated that states recognize same-sex marriages, the way Alabama's marriage laws are written, judges cannot be forced to solemnize them. It puts the state in a weird conflict—Roy Moore aside, the state acknowledges it must legally recognize the marriages. But judges cannot be forced to solemnize them, and many are refusing.
So what Beckman is proposing here is a way for everybody to win. Conservative judges who don't support same-sex marriages don't have to solemnize them. Gay couples can have whatever weddings they want (or don't want), file the paperwork and have their marriages legally recognized without having to deal with some cranky old judge's attitude.
It's an interesting experiment, but unfortunately there are folks on both sides of the aisle who want to keep the government involved in marriage. A Democratic state representative complained to NPR that the problem that there are some judges who don't want to "adhere to the rule of law," even though the state's law says they don't have to solemnize marriages. The Supreme Court decision only requires that states themselves recognize same-sex marriages. It doesn't create a particular process for doing so.
And then there's the one Republican senator who opposed the change, complaining to NPR that it somehow "cheapens the value of the most sacred relationship in the world" by taking the government out of it. Phil Williams added:
"When you take marriage and you reduce it to a mere contract, it's almost like you're just doing nothing more than recording the deed to your property at the courthouse. You're just taking the contract down there and the probate judge is just the clerk."
But what's the downside, Sen. Williams?
Seriously, though, why on earth is Williams associating the stamp of approval of a probate judge with the sacredness of the ceremony?
Also unreasonably worried are wedding businesses who think people will stop having big weddings if marriage ceremonies are no longer mandatory. That doesn't exactly seem logical. People don't have to have big marriage ceremonies to be legally married as it is, even in Alabama. Trying to keep marriage license rules in place purely to protect wedding businesses would be terrible (not to mention there are all sorts of lawsuits going on over wedding businesses who don't want to be ordered to serve same-sex couples).
Unfortunately, while the state's senate may be willing to experiment in reducing government control over marriage processes, the state's house seems less willing, and it may not make it to a floor vote.
That's a shame. It was state-level experimentation with marriage laws that got us same-sex marriage in the first place. There was no way the Supreme Court would have ruled the way it had if it weren't for the years of state-level evidence that recognizing same-sex marriages did not have any of the negative consequences critics insisted would follow.
If a state took more of a hands-off role in licensing marriages in the first place, maybe we would discover that we don't really need them as gatekeepers, and we as citizens should have the freedom to define our families as we choose, not as the state tells us we must.
Read the bill here.