Missouri: Legislation Would Restrict Marriage to Churches

GOP Rep TJ Berry proposed HB 1424 to redefine marriage.

Newly proposed legislation in Missouri would restrict the institution of marriage to those who attend church by changing the legal definition of marriage. House Bill 1424, sponsored by State Representative T.J. Berry (R), would change all mentions of marriage in Missouri law to “domestic union,” effectively reserving the term ‘marriage’ for religious institutions.

Background

This is the third time Berry has proposed such legislation as his previous two attempts died in committee. Each iteration of the legislation has one thing in common, though: the aim to offer a legal loophole to the historic Obergefell Supreme Court ruling affirming same-sex couples are legally entitled to access the fundamental institution of marriage.

In explaining the rationale behind the legislation, Berry – a Southern Baptist and ordained deacon – told Friendly Atheist‘s David McAfee:

If someone wants to go through a religious ceremony they may go to the church that they feel comfortable with. If a couple wants to receive government benefits they would get a civil document from the government.

Berry added:

I personally don’t care how someone defines or celebrates their commitment to one another. I do believe that if an individual church chooses not to approve of someone else’s definition of the word marriage Government can not [sic] step in and force a church to except [sic] same sex marriage.

Berry took issue with the argument that churches would be the only institutions that could use the word ‘marriage’ saying those institutions “would be free to hold any ceremony they like.” Conversely, churches “would not be required to notify government upon performing any ceremony” they call a marriage.

Because marriage, in the legal sense of the word, would no longer exist in Missouri.

“Yes if you want a religious ceremony defined by a church that would be correct. Churches would be free to define that as their convictions prescribe” Berry admitted when pressed by McAfee.

Responding to the legislation, Dion Wisniewski – executive director of the Missouri advocacy group The Center Project – told INTO:

“This has already been covered in the courts, so you’re taking time and spending taxpayer money on something that is likely being done just to say they tried,” Wisniewski claims in an email to INTO. “Bills like this one have been filed in the past without success, so I don’t know what they think is going to happen this time.”

“If it does pass, I don’t know why they think it will stand up in the Supreme Court,” he adds.

Creating (Not Solving) a Problem

While Berry argues his legislation ‘solves’ the problem of businesses and churches being ‘forced’ to serve or do business with same-sex couples getting married, the truth of the matter is no church has ever been ‘forced’ into such activities to date. Moreover, no public accommodation protections currently exist covering sexual orientation at the state level in Missouri, so businesses can already legally refuse to do business with marrying same-sex couples without legal repercussions.

Passing HB 1424 is a solution to a problem that does not exist.

Passage of the bill, however, would actually create a host of problems not only for marrying (and already married) same-sex couples, but also for non-religious heterosexual couples.

While Missouri law would be rewritten to define all the legal rights and privileges of marriage as applying to the separate, differently defined ‘domestic union,’ that definition would not cross state lines. Anyone married in Missouri could have difficulty qualifying for marriage-related legal benefits in other states that do not recognize non-marriage domestic contracts as being the same as a marriage certificate.

Moreover, the federal government does not recognize domestic unions as being the same as marriages for purposes of legal benefits including taxes, Social Security and military spousal benefits.

Should HB 1424 become law, anyone already married or planning to marry in Missouri would be severely affected.

For the moment, the bill is sitting in committee. That doesn’t guarantee it will stay there, however – especially given the current political atmosphere and the way anti-LGBTQ laws have been upheld by the court system in recent weeks.

 

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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