Oklahoma lawmakers contemplate eliminating all marriage — licenses, that is

My wife, Tamie, and I lived together for 15 years and brought three precious babies into the world before we finally went to an Oklahoma county courthouse and got our marriage license in 2005. Since our local newspaper publishes the names and addresses of those granted licenses, we were a bit concerned about the scandal our late nuptials might create at church.

To anyone who asked, we shared our funny — and true — story.

That is, we exchanged our wedding vows in my wife's hometown church in 1990. A preacher pronounced us husband and wife. It's just that I graduated from Oklahoma Christian University the day before our wedding, and we ran out of time to get blood tests and complete the official government paperwork before we said "I do." Then we left on our honeymoon. And, well, we just never needed a marriage license until 2005, when it became important for a reason that escapes me now.

Despite our lack of a license, my wife and I — both raised in Churches of Christ — saw our marriage as a sacred commitment, as did our families. Not for a second did we consider living together out of wedlock. To say that religion played a key role in our view of marriage would be a huge understatement.

Perhaps Tamie and I were — besides being young, in love and stupid — 25 years ahead of our time?

Oklahoma lawmakers are making national headlines this week for considering — seriously, it seems — getting the state out of the marriage business.

No, this proposal has nothing to do with Oklahoma's high divorce rate — a problem the state has spent more than $70 million trying to combat.

Rather, this week's legislative activity marks one more skirmish in the battle over same-sex marriage, as The Oklahoman reports:

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.”

Besides lawmakers on both sides, The Oklahoman quoted a gay-rights advocate opposed to the measure:

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.”

Religion News Service cited concern by Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

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.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker quoted by the Tulsa World introduced God into the discussion:

“Marriage was not instituted by government,” said Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan. “It was instituted by God. There is no reason for Oklahoma or any state to be involved in marriage.”

But none of the coverage I've seen so far has quoted actual religious leaders — either for or against eliminating state-sanctioned marriage licenses. 

Their perspective would seem to be an interesting — and important — angle for reporters to explore. (Six in 10 Americans say the government should not define or regulate marriage, according to Lifeway Research.) 

My son Brady and his fiancée, Mary, are planning a summer wedding. Will they need a license or just a preacher? Stay tuned.

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