POLITICS

Oklahoma Bill Would Give Clergy Power Over Marriage Licenses

03/12/2015 04:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015
Jordan McAlister via Getty Images

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) -- In an effort to block the state’s involvement with gay marriage, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday (March 10) to abolish marriage licenses in the state.

The legislation, authored by Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, amends language in the state law that governs the responsibilities of court clerks. All references to marriage licenses were removed.

Russ said the intent of the bill is to protect court clerks caught between the federal and state governments. A federal appeals court overturned Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage last year. Russ, like many Republican legislators in the state, including Gov. Mary Fallin, believes the federal government overstepped its constitutional authority on this issue.

Acknowledging that his bill is partially in response to the federal court ruling, Russ told ABC News affiliate KSWO that the federal government lacks the power to “force its new definitions of what they believe on independent states.”

Russ said the federal government is attempting to change the traditional definition of marriage, so his legislation would place the responsibility for officiating marriages in the hands of clergy.

“Marriage was historically a religious covenant first and a government-recognized contract second,” Russ told The Oklahoman.

The legislation has sparked controversy, both in the Legislature and with groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Oklahoma Democrats are concerned that the legislation will lead to a “Pandora’s box” of issues, including polygamy, once the government’s authority to regulate marriage is removed.

Americans United released a statement opposing the bill, saying it is biased against same-sex couples and nontheists, including atheists. Russ has been unapologetic in defending his exclusion of nontheists from the right to marry.

“They don’t have a spiritual basis for a marriage and don’t want to have a clergy member or a priest or someone involved in the spiritual aspect,” Russ told KSWO, “then they can file an affidavit of common-law marriage.”

The bill would require court clerks to issue certificates of marriage signed by ordained clergy or affidavits of common-law marriage.

The Senate has not yet voted on the measure. Nor has Gov. Fallin indicated what she will do if the bill passes the Senate.

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