Just in time for new year, one state debates ending government-sanctioned marriage

Way back in 2004 — during Season 6 of the Emmy Award-winning television drama "The West Wing" — a congressman raised the idea of banning marriage. All marriage.

With two-thirds of Americans then opposed to same-sex nuptials, a gay Democrat identified as "Rep. Benoit" proposed getting the government out of the marriage business.

"If the government can't make it available to everyone, I want us out of the business entirely," Benoit said to Josh Lyman, chief political adviser in the fictional Josiah Bartlet administration. "Leave it to churches and synagogues, and, of course, casinos and department stores."

Lyman chuckled and brushed off the suggestion.

Fast-forward more than a decade: A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court has legalized it. And amid ongoing battles pitting gay rights vs. religious liberty, some real-life lawmakers wonder if the answer might be removing the government from the process.

The Associated Press reports on a Missouri legislator's proposal to do just that:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri Republican saw last year's debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would have protected businesses that deny services to same-sex couples bring lawmakers to tears and grind legislative work to a halt. His solution: Take state government out of marriage completely, for both gay and heterosexual couples.
"You can stop spending so much emotional energy on the issue, and we can move on to other things," state Rep. T.J. Berry said, adding, "I'm treating everybody the exact same way and leaving space for people to believe what they believe outside of government."
His bill, filed ahead of the 2017 legislative session, would make Missouri the first state to recognize only domestic unions for both heterosexual and same-sex couples, treating legal partnerships equally and leaving marriages to be done by pastors and other religious leaders.

The Missouri legislation follows a similar debate in Oklahoma that GetReligion covered in 2015. Click here and here for those past GR posts.

The AP story out of Jefferson City suffers from a common framing problem right up top, as it refers to last year's proposed amendment as seeking to protect businesses that "deny services to same-sex couples." The issue, as we've stressed repeatedly, is more complex than that.

To its credit, the AP report does later include a key word missing from the lede ("conscience"):

The bill is backed by states' rights group Tenth Amendment Center, whose spokesman Mike Maharrey called it a "great compromise" and referenced county clerks in other states, such as Kentucky, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"It removes that type of battle of conscience," he said.

And the piece quotes a few religious leaders:

Members of the Missouri Baptist Convention are concerned that endorsing Berry's measure would be seen as accepting the Supreme Court's ruling, policy director Don Hinkle said.
"We believe that the Bible is literally the words of God, and we're to keep his commandments," Hinkle said. "And he makes it very clear that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman." ...
And there's the possibility that the measure could chip away at the significance of marriage.
"If you replace marriage with domestic union, will people still take that contract as seriously?" Missouri Catholic Conference Executive Director Mike Hoey said.

Still, the report left me with a number of questions, such as: 1. What exactly would the role of religious organizations be under the Missouri proposal? 2. Would the absence of state marriage licenses actually eliminate the clashes over conscience rights of, say, wedding photographers, florists and bakers? 

It'll be interesting to see if the proposal gains much traction as Missouri lawmakers consider it.

In the meantime, this is only the second craziest marriage idea highlighted at GetReligion today.

If you missed the first, be sure to check out my colleague Julia Duin's post on women who decide to marry ... themselves.

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