Man, Woman and
Sparked by controversy over same-sex marriages, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would abolish government-issued Oklahoma marriage licenses.
“The point of my legislation is to take the state out of the process and leave marriage in the hands of the clergy,” said state Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, the bill’s House author. “Marriage was historically a religious covenant first and a government-recognized contract second. Under my bill, the state is not allowing or disallowing same-sex marriage. It is simply leaving it up to the clergy.”
Under House Bill 1125, marriage licenses would be replaced by marriage certificates issued by clergy and others authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. The bill passed the House 67-24 and will now go to the Senate for consideration.
Russ’ bill sparked spirited discussion on the House floor, with some Democrat lawmakers arguing that the bill could have unintended consequences — like eliminating the state’s ability to stop bigamy or polygamy.
“As I read your bill, as long as the clergy has signed off on it, the state will have essentially signed off on it,” said House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City. “You are potentially opening up Pandora’s Box.”
Russ disputed that interpretation, saying other provisions in the law that make multiple marriages illegal would remain in place.
Russ said the bill is designed to protect employees of county court clerks’ offices who have been “caught in the middle of a fight between the federal and state government” over the legality of same-sex marriages.
Oklahoma law currently defines marriage as being “with a person of the opposite sex,” but federal circuit courts have ruled same-sex marriages are legal. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue later this year.
Russ said he decided to author the bill because some court clerks have told him they feel uncomfortable about being placed in the middle of the dispute.
His bill would leave it up to clergy and other individuals who are authorized to perform marriages to determine whether legal requirements have been met to issue marriage certificates. The role of court clerks would be reduced to filing the marriage certificates or affidavits of common law marriage.
The bill, as drafted, also would eliminate from Oklahoma law the words that define marriage as being “with a person of the opposite sex.”
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, argued that if the U.S. Supreme Court should unexpectedly uphold state laws that define marriage as being between a man and a woman, Russ’ bill would end up making same-sex marriages legal in Oklahoma.
Russ accused some lawmakers of trying to create confusion.
“I was proud to receive the support of a majority of my colleagues,” Russ said. “I was disappointed in a few opponents trying to mischaracterize the bill, but for the most part, Oklahomans see this as a positive step around the federal government’s disregard for our 10th Amendment and individual states’ liberties.”
The executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, which advocates in behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, criticized House passage of the measure.
“This legislation puts all couples who plan to marry in Oklahoma at risk of being denied hundreds of federal legal rights and protections, if it were to become law,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. “The federal government and other states will not be required to acknowledge these proposed ‘marriage certificates.’ This legislation will only result in mass confusion from clerks’ offices to courtrooms around the nation — while putting Oklahoma families at risk.”