Written by Don Byrd

Legislation that recently passed the Alabama Senate by a 19-1 vote addresses religious objections to performing marriage ceremonies in an unusual way: by doing away with the ceremony requirement altogether. The measure advanced through the House Judiciary Committee this past week and is headed for a vote by the full House as early as next week.

Current state law requires that a marriage must be solemnized by a member of the clergy or a current or retired judge to be lawful. If enacted, a couple seeking to record their marriage would simply submit a form to a probate judge. No certification of the union or solemnization of the marriage would be required. 

AL.com reports on the intent of the proposal:

The bill, proposed by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, would remove the granting of marriage licenses from the authority of the probate judge and ensure couples could get married in every county.

Albritton said by eliminating the requirement for a ceremony, the state’s involvement is limited to only a civil role and not any religious aspects.

Some states have struggled in recent years to manage situations in which couples entitled to marry were denied a license because of a clerk’s refusal on religious grounds to certify a same-sex marriage, or because a judge refused to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. The proposed solution in Alabama would remove the state from any role related to a couple’s wedding.

This legislative effort reminds me of a 2014 column written by BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. There, she was not discussing the dilemma for government actors who object but rather for the church’s involvement in solemnizing a marriage ceremony as essentially an agent of the state. “Though it would be extremely difficult to fully unravel the tangled relationship between religious and civil marriages that state laws reflect,” she wrote, “the BJC welcomes the thoughtful discussion.” 

Regardless of the motive, could removing the state from the role of certifying or solemnizing marriage ceremonies be a step toward untangling that relationship?