Oklahoma Bill puts same-sex marriage debate in clergy's hands

by Vanessa Rodriguez, |

OKLAHOMA CITY (Christian Examiner) -- An Oklahoma bill proposing clergy issued marriage certificates replace state-issued marriage licenses passed from the state's House to Senate last week.

Legislators voted 67-24 in favor of House Bill 1125 last week despite criticism that the law seeks to circumvent the legalization of same-sex marriage after a federal judge overturned the state's ban on the unions.

The bill's author Republican Rep. Todd Russ of Cordell claims the law's intent is to remove government involvement with marriage licensing.

Russ said the shift alleviates a burden from court clerks whose religious convictions prevent them from supporting gay marriage. Clerks would remain responsible for filing the clergy-issued marriage certificate after a ceremony, regardless of the type of union, according to NewsOk.

"Marriage was historically a religious covenant first and a government-recognized contract second," Russ told the Associated Press. "Under my bill, the state is not allowing or disallowing same-sex marriage. It is simply leaving it up to the clergy."

Gay rights advocates call the bill a "risk" that threatens "federal legal rights and protections."

"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," Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma told NewsOk. Stevenson further suggested the legislation could cause confusion in states where the certificates were not recognized.

Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, in session before the vote, quoted current Oklahoma law and said issues raised by critics took legislatures on a "rabbit trail," and that law would be simple. Ministers who violated law would be committing "a felony" if they did not follow the law and if they married those ineligible. "I appreciated the conversation and I appreciated the debate," he said.

He urged support of the bill and said it would not change marriage in Oklahoma.

Democratic Rep. Emily Virgin told legislators they would be marking out part of an Oklahoma law which forbids same-sex marriage and asked if that was their intent. "So are you admitting that same-sex marriage is legal in Oklahoma?"

"The government right now issues marriage licenses," Virgin said. "Now what you are doing is giving those licenses to clergy. They're the ones under this legislation who can decide who gets married."

Sponsor of the bill, Rep. Russ, indicated that is the intent. To put marriage into hands of the clergy, rather than the government.