‘It’s A Scandal, It’s An Outrage!’: Oklahoma Legislator Wants To Restrict Marriage To People Of Faith

A new bill filed by Oklahoma State Rep. Todd Russ. House Bill 1125 would bar judges and other public officials from solemnizing marriages. Marriage licenses would have to be approved by a clergy person.

Same-sex couples can now marry in the state of Oklahoma. But if a state legislator gets his way, atheists and other religious minorities would have a much harder time tying the knot.

A new bill filed by Oklahoma State Rep. Todd Russ. House Bill 1125 would bar judges and other public officials from solemnizing marriages. Marriage licenses would have to be approved by a clergy person.

As written, the bill even seems to restrict the right to marry to Christians and Jews. The ability to sign off on a marriage license would belong to “…an ordained or authorized preacher or minister of the Gospel, priest or other ecclesiastical dignitary of any denomination who has been duly ordained or authorized by the church to which he or she belongs to preach the Gospel, or a rabbi.”

Russ explained his thinking to local ABC affiliate KSWO 7. “Put it back to what it was supposed to be and was originally a holy matrimony and a very solemn and spiritual vow,” he said.

The lawmaker is unapologetic about the fact his bill would restrict marriage to people of faith. Concerning non-believers he said, “They don't have a spiritual basis for a marriage and don’t want to have a clergy member or a priest or someone involved in the spiritual aspect, then they can file an affidavit of common-law marriage.”

Russ also admitted that the bill is a reaction to a federal appeals court ruling that overturned Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban.

“[T]he federal government does not have a right to come in and force its new definitions of what they believe on independent states – not just Oklahoma, but any state,” he concluded.

Russ isn’t the only Oklahoma legislator to file bills intended to halt equality’s march in the state: State Rep. Sally Kern filed a bill that, if passed, would make it legal for the state to terminate the salary of any public employee who issued a same-sex marriage license.

The de facto restricting marriage to people of faith, however, is a particularly audacious tactic that manages to combine anti-gay discrimination with discrimination against non-theists. It’s possible for LGBT people to find a sympathetic clergy person willing to sign a marriage license; clergy from many faiths already perform these unions, and in North Carolina, the United Church of Christ even filed suit against the state arguing that the state’s same-sex marriage ban violated their religious freedom by prohibiting them from solemnizing all marriages.

Oklahoma’s atheists would face fairly steep hurdles.

The status of common-law marriages in Oklahoma is shaky at best. If Russ’ bill passes, couples who wish to choose a non-religious celebrant to solemnize their marriage will be able to do so, but their unions could be attacked as lacking legal status, and the rights that accompany that status would be in jeopardy. 

Of course, this bizarre proposal, should it pass, would likely fare poorly in court.  Strike one: Russ clearly has sectarian motivations for proposing the bill, which violates the First Amendment. Strike two: The bill would violate the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment by disenfranchising all marriages performed by non-religious celebrants and, possibly, religious celebrants who aren’t Christian or Jewish.

But Russ doesn’t seem to care about the Constitution, or a significant number of his constituents. It’s patently absurd that the quest to “defend marriage” has now manifested itself in a proposal that would strip the right away from anyone outside two preferred religious traditions.

As we’ve said so often about the Religious Right’s social campaigns, bills like this aren’t really about religious freedom, but about control. Russ and his allies in the legislature want to legally enforce a definition of marriage that has spiritual significance to them, and they find the idea that marriage means other, equally important things to different people intolerable. State legislatures, however, don’t exist to pass doctrinal mandates. That’s for churches and houses of worship. They exist to pass laws that adhere to our secular Constitution.  The role of state legislator is not in any way comparable to that of church elder.

It’s time for Russ to remember that when he’s in the Capitol, he’s in the people’s house. And that means all people.