marriage equality

Alabama May Abolish Marriage Licenses to Protect Homophobic Judges

A Republican-controlled legislature is coming to the aid of probate judges who don’t want to license same-sex marriages. Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

You may recall a big national brouhaha over a Kentucky clerk named Kim Davis, who refused to obey the law of the land by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on grounds that the angry patriarchal God she seemed to worship would strike her down. She wasn’t the only magistrate who went rogue. In Alabama, marriage licenses are issued by probate judges. Turns out state law authorizes, but does not require, them to issue any at all, and so some just stopped doing so.

This seemed irregular to a Republican state legislator, so he’s introduced legislation abolishing marriage licenses altogether, as NBC News reports:

Alabama Republican State Sen. Greg Albritton fashions himself a “traditionalist.”

“I’d like to think I’m kind of a religious guy,” he told NBC News. “I believe marriage is a sacrament of God.” Another thing Albritton believes in: following the law.

That’s why Albritton said he introduced a bill in Alabama — one of several states that has encountered trouble adopting same-sex marriage following the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling — that would get rid of marriage licenses in the state altogether. But the jury is still out on whether his proposed solution is smart policy or a way to shield homophobic judges who refuse to issue these licenses to LGBTQ couples.

It’s more likely the latter, since it’s less a matter of “following the law” than simply withdrawing the jurisdiction of the federal courts from the issue.

What bugs me a bit about this idea is a certain historical parallel. When federal courts (led by SCOTUS in Brown v. Board of Education) began demanding the desegregation of public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, one strategy southern segregationists pursued was simply to abolish public schools altogether, while encouraging white parents to move their kids to private “segregation academies,” sometimes with public support. In Alabama, for example, an estimated 50,000 white children abandoned public schools during this period, and the number of private schools jumped from 35 to 130. Indeed, this strategy was the direct antecedent to today’s conservative obsession with moving tax dollars from public to private schools under the slogan “parental control” (which you also heard a lot from segregationists).

Now obviously abandoning marriage licenses isn’t as harmful as abandoning public education; Alabamans, straight or gay, will still get married, and will basically register their own non-state-sanctioned nuptials with the same probate judges who will no longer have to do anything to bless them. For the moment at least, LGBTQ-rights advocates in Alabama aren’t opposing the legislation, which has already unanimously passed the state senate.

But there remains something unseemly if not illegal about a state that cannot just acknowledge equality without a fuss and instead eliminates a public service to avoid offering it equally. It’s part and parcel of a much larger Christian right strategy of carving out private areas of protected discrimination in the name of “religious liberty.” And it’s a crying shame for all involved.

State Drops Marriage Licenses to Protect Homophobic Judges