The Oklahoma House of Representatives has approved a bill that would take public officials out of the business of issuing marriage licenses, a move its sponsor says will "protect" them from having to grant licenses to same-sex couples.
The House approved the bill 67-24 Tuesday afternoon, and it now goes to the Senate, The Oklahoman reports.
If it becomes law, county court clerks would cease issuing marriage licenses in Oklahoma. Instead, clergy members or others who perform marriages would sign a couple's marriage certificate and file it with the court clerk.
"The point of my legislation is to take the state out of the process and leave marriage in the hands of the clergy," Republican state Rep. Todd Russ, the bill's House author and an Assemblies of God minister, told The Oklahoman. "Marriage was historically a religious covenant first and a government-recognized contract second. Under my bill, the state is not allowing or disallowing same-sex marriage. It is simply leaving it up to the clergy."
Same-sex marriage became legal in Oklahoma in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court let a lower court's pro-equality ruling stand, to the chagrin of the conservatives who dominate state politics. Russ has said some county court clerks are uncomfortable with issuing licenses to same-sex couples. His legislation "takes them out of the trap," he told the Tulsa World.
However, the bill also removes language from state law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. "Opponents, most of them Democrats, said the bill would create a scenario in which Republicans will have legalized same-sex marriages even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings the bill seeks to counter," the World reports.
Some also said that getting government out of the marriage business opens the door to polygamous marriages. "You are potentially opening up Pandora's Box," House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Democrat, told Russ during the debate, according to The Oklahoman.
Russ said there are safeguards against polygamous marriages and that his opponents are simply trying to create confusion. "I was proud to receive the support of a majority of my colleagues," Russ told The Oklahoman. "I was disappointed in a few opponents trying to mischaracterize the bill, but for the most part, Oklahomans see this as a positive step around the federal government's disregard for our 10th Amendment and individual states' liberties."
Troy Stevenson, executive director of LGBT rights group Freedom Oklahoma, objected to the bill. "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," he told The Oklahoman. "The federal government and other states will not be required to acknowledge these proposed 'marriage certificates.' This legislation will only result in mass confusion from clerks' offices to courtrooms around the nation -- while putting Oklahoma families at risk."
Russ's bill is one of several introduced in the state in reaction to the marriage equality ruling. Among them is one authored by famously antigay Rep. Sally Kern, which would prohibit public funds from going to any state agency that recognizes same-sex marriages. Kern has also authored a bill to enshrine a right to "ex-gay" therapy into law, and she filed but withdrew a so-called religious freedom bill that would allow business operators to turn away customers who offended their religious sensibilities, such as same-sex couples seeking wedding services. Sen. Joseph Silk has introduced a bill similar to the latter one; it remains pending.