Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

If you follow America’s battles over religious liberty (no scare quotes), you know that things are getting complicated.

One of the most important stories out there is the search for compromises that protect the rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers who affirm centuries of religious doctrines that reject this new teaching by the state.

Yes, that’s a complicated statement. It doesn’t help that America doesn’t do compromises very well, these days. It also doesn’t help that many — some would say “most” — political reporters have zero interest in learning more about these complicated church-state issues. The result, in many cases, are news reports in which it is almost impossible for readers to know what is going on or why some politicos are taking the stance that they are taking.

Case in point is this Alabama Political Reporter story that ran with this headline: “Legislature OKs bill ending marriage licenses.”

This is complicated, so let’s walk through this carefully. The key question: Who opposed this bill and why did they oppose it?

… The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the requirement that marriages must be solemnized with some sort of a ceremony and the state will no longer issue licenses giving two people permission to marry. Instead, the state will simply record that a marriage exists.

Senate Bill 69 is sponsored by state Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

Under Alabama law, marriages can only be between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that centuries-old legal standard in the highly controversial 5-to-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

SB69 ends the requirement that there has to be a marriage ceremony. A couple will simply fill out and sign the marriage forms, pay the recording fee, and the probate judge’s office will record that there is a marriage agreement between the two parties.

“All the state needs to do is ensure that a marriage is legally formed,” Albritton told a House Committee last month. “If you want to have a ceremony go to your pastor and have it in whatever form you want to do. This takes marriage out of the state purview.”

So what we have here is a radically simplified contract system that creates a legal union — gay or straight — in the eyes of the state government.

If citizens want a “marriage” rite, they are free to arrange that with the religious or secular professional of their choice. They just need to let the state know, for legal reasons, that this has happened.

Thus, the story stated:

Under SB69 a couple wanting to enter into marriage no longer need to find a priest, pastor, judge, rabi, imam, or boat captain to officiate. Simply sign the papers and pay the recording fees, and the state will record that it exists. …

Sen. Albritton said, “This brings Alabama in conformity with federal law. The state law right now is not in conformity with Obergefell.”

So this is a win for same-sex couples in Alabama, right? They are now free to form a union, using the same system as straight couples.

So who opposed this bill?

Well, the bill had one very famous, or many would say “infamous,” critic. Anyone remember Judge Roy Moore?

The Foundation for Moral Law had opposed HB69. Foundation President Emeritus, Roy Moore, stated: “SB69 is founded on a craven capitulation to an illegitimate Supreme Court decision that defiles the institution of marriage. All legislators of conscience should reject it. Alabama Supreme Court decisions, both before and after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, require Alabama probate judges to respect the state Constitution’s definition of marriage as ‘a unique relationship between a man and a woman.’”

So this was a “liberal” bill, since it cleared the way for same-sex couples to be married — in the rites of their choosing — using the same system as other Alabama folks. Did I read that right?

Apparently not. You see, this bill was a compromise between two cultural armies.

Other than Moore, on the far right, who else opposed this bill?

Many Democrats voted against the measure; but did not actually speak against it on the floor as there was an agreement between the two parties’ leaderships to speed things up and pass as much legislation as possible on Thursday. The normally “talkative” Representatives John Rogers, D-Birmingham, and Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, had business elsewhere. …

Apparently, reporters attempted to talk to these Democrats, in an attempt to learn why they opposed this compromise bill.

But why stop there?

Is there a law that only political leaders can address a subject of this kind? Why not talk to leaders of the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church? Why not talk to Episcopal priests on the cultural left, or Reform rabbis? Why not talk to Unitarian clergy? What are the marriage options of choice for atheists and agnostics, now that the state has left the secular ceremony business?

Actually, another sentence in this thin piece hints at the reason: Just as there were people on the RIGHT who didn’t want to compromise, there were people on the LEFT who didn’t want to compromise, either. See this paragraph:

Many Alabama probate judges found officiating at same-sex marriage ceremonies morally repugnant and an affront to God’s law. They no longer have to officiate any wedding ceremonies as part of their job.

Ah, there’s the rub. This bill protected same-sex marriage, but it failed to punish the traditional religious believers who opposed this definition of “marriage.” That’s a point of view that needed to be represented in this story, with quotes that allowed those believers on the religious and cultural left to state why neutrality by the state was not acceptable.

If you want to see more info on that side of the story, look at this NBC New report: “ 'Good governance' or 'protecting homophobia'? Alabama mulls nixing marriage licenses altogether.

Here is the political version of the material that was missing from the Alabama Political Reporter story. This is long, but essential:

Albritton has introduced the bill multiple times, in part he says because some counties within his district aren’t currently issuing licenses. The bill keeps dying in the House, but this time around he thinks he has the votes.

If passed, Albritton believes the law “would open up all of Alabama to get married throughout the state without interruption or difficulty,” “streamline the process” and, importantly, “separate the church and state functions.”

Some, though, see the law as a capitulation to probate judges who refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“It seems to be less about good governance and more about protecting homophobia,” Rep. Neil Rafferty, the first gay man elected to the Alabama Legislature, told NBC News. “Alabama would be the first state to do something like this,” he said, adding he hasn’t been able to speak to Albritton yet, so he doesn’t know for certain the intentions behind the bill. …

Albritton insists his motivation is to “find a means with the least amount of trouble with the greatest possibility of consensus … without making anybody mad.”

“It doesn’t hurt anybody, it doesn’t hurt anything, it doesn't hurt the institution,” he said. “If you want a ceremony, you can have a ceremony, any type of ceremony you choose, but it won’t affect the legality of the marriage.”

In other words, is it enough — for some people on the left and the right — for the state to be neutral?

Stay tuned. It’s important that reporters grasp that there are other religious (left and right) and secular voices that need to be heard, if readers are going to understand what is going on in these debates.

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