This Lawmaker Wants to Redefine Marriages Not Performed In Churches As ‘Domestic Unions’

· Updated on May 28, 2018

A Republican lawmaker in Missouri wants to redefine marriage.

State Rep. T.J. Berry (R-Kearney) is sponsoring a bill that would limit the state’s definition of marriage to couples who are married in a church, instead classifying ceremonies performed at city hall or other venues as “domestic unions.”

House Bill 1434 was pre-filed prior to the 2018 legislative session, which convened earlier this month. This is the third consecutive year he has put forward the proposal.

Berry claims the legislation is intended to resolve religious conflicts over the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize marriage equality. An ordained deacon in the Southern Baptist church, he says churches feel “threatened” by the idea that the government could compel them to perform same-sex marriages.

“I don’t necessarily believe that, but they fear it,” Berry told the Springfield News-Leader.

The self-described “very religious” conservative says reasonable compromise is necessary to ensure the rights of people of faith are protected following the Obergefell ruling. Berry believes HB 1434 settles the issue by taking marriage out of the government’s hands entirelydismissing the suggestion that doing so would be discriminatory.

“I’m treating everybody the exact same way and leaving space for people to believe what they believe outside of government,” he added in an interview with the Associated Press.

But as Berry himself noted, almost no one seems to think this proposal is a good idea.

Dion Wisniewski, executive director of the Missouri advocacy group The Center Project, says he is “irritated and frustrated” by the bill, but not surprised.

“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.

This is the third consecutive year Berry has put forward HB 1434. The massive bill, which clocks in at 377 pages, has yet to receive a hearing in the Missouri Legislature.

Should the legislation be greeted with a warmer reception this time around, Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow says it could trigger a complicated legal situation for LGBTQ married couples in the state.

Because HB 1434 doesn’t entirely void marriages performed outside of a church, Missouri would continue to recognize that, say, a gay couple who tied the knot in their backyard is entitled to benefits at the state level. But married same-sex partners receive additional federal benefitsin the form of social security and reduced taxeswhich would thusly be jeopardized if their relationship were reclassified as a “domestic union.”

“The federal government has not historically recognized alternatives to marriage for those rights, benefits, and obligations,” Warbelow tells INTO in a phone interview.

What’s most confusing about the bill, advocates say, is that the LGBTQ community wouldn’t be the only population harmed by Berry’s proposal. It also would redefine the marriages of opposite-sex couples under the same category if they weren’t conducted on religious grounds.

Warbelow says HB 1434 would “call into question all couples’ rights.”

“It’s hard to believe [this legislation is] something most conservatives would support,” she claims. “Most Americans think that marriage is an important institution, and they don’t want to get rid of it.”

Even though such a law being enacted would impact every married couple in Missouri, it stands to have a disproportionate effect on the local LGBTQ population. Many same-sex couples in the state decide not to get married in a house of worship because they fear they will be discriminated against, Wisniewski says.

Should a lesbian couple, for instance, not be able to find a pastor or church willing to perform the ceremony, HB 1434 would essentially be punishing them twice.

“No matter how much progress we make, there is always going to be a push from conservative groups to roll back protections for individuals or enact new laws to make it more difficult to live normal lives,” Wisniewski claims. “Conservative groups are putting pressure on the legislature to protect the ‘biblical definition’ of marriage, even though they aren’t being forced to perform these services in most cases.”

Because the fallout from Berry’s draft bill is so extreme, it might be tempting to write off the proposal as yet another lost causean empty gesture designed to appease a conservative lawmaker’s base. It has already failed twice, after all.

But Warbelow suggests that would be a mistake in the current political environment.

“Bills that in prior years saw no movement or people were dismissive of them need to be taken even more seriously under an administration that’s made clear they don’t support the view that LGBTQ people are covered under current federal laws,” she says, pointing to President Trump’s continued rollback of protections for queer and trans people.

Last year saw the passage of a Tennessee law, State Bill 1085, which mandated that words like “mother” and “father” be regarded with “their natural and ordinary meaning” based upon “biological distinctions between women and men.”

The universally derided proposal was a source of national mockery until Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed it into effect last May.

HB 1434 is one of four anti-LGBTQ bills that have already been introduced in the Missouri Legislature this year. In the vein of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, two proposed bathroom billsSenate Bill 690 and House Bill 1755would force trans people to use public facilities which do not correspond with their gender identity.

The “Missouri Marriage Solemnization Refusal Bill,” known as House Bill 1763, allows members of the clergy to refuse marriage services to same-sex couples if doing so would conflict with their “religious beliefs or sincerely held moral convictions.”

Wisniewski claims LGBTQ groups in the state will continue to combat these discriminatory proposals.

“There is no indication that conservatives are going to let up any time soonso we must keep up the fight,” he says. “If we stop, they will just jam through useless and discriminatory legislation that has the sole purpose of making us less than opposite-sex couples under the guise of religious freedom.”

Last year, nine bills targeting the queer and trans community were defeated in the legislature.

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