JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A Missouri Republican saw last year's debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would have protected businesses that deny services to same-sex couples bring lawmakers to tears and grind legislative work to a halt. His potential solution: Take state government out of marriage completely.
"You can stop spending so much emotional energy on the issue, and we can move on to other things," state Rep. T.J. Berry said, adding, "I'm treating everybody the exact same way and leaving space for people to believe what they believe outside of government."
His bill, filed ahead of the 2017 legislative session, would make Missouri the first state to recognize only domestic unions for both heterosexual and gay couples, treating legal partnerships equally and leaving marriages to be done by pastors and other religious leaders.
But such peace could be elusive for several reasons. Some argue that leaving marriage to religious leaders is a way to constitutionally refuse to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples. Plus, there are potential logistical issues with stripping references to marriage in hundreds of state statutes, and the federal government recognizes only marriages for benefits. Berry's idea has been met by skepticism from pretty much all sides of the gay marriage issue.
Other states including Alabama, Indiana and Michigan failed to pass similar bills to limit the government's role in marriage, and Oklahoma representatives passed a bill that didn't make it out of the Senate.
The Missouri bill's chances are unclear, although Republican House Majority Floor Leader Mike Cierpiot, who lives 30 minutes south of Kansas City in Lee's Summit, said the issue needs to be discussed due to impassioned arguments among LGBT rights groups and religious organizations that have continued in the wake of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
The bill is backed by states' rights group Tenth Amendment Center, whose spokesman Mike Maharrey called it a "great compromise" and referenced county clerks in other states, such as Kentucky, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"It removes that type of battle of conscience," he said.
While the bill "would treat all couples the same" — at least in Missouri — the legal director for the national LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign highlighted a significant issue. The federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships or other alternative unions, so Missouri's same-sex and opposite-sex couples would need to get married in another state to receive federal benefits regarding taxation, social security and military spousal benefits, Sarah Warbelow said.
Berry, who's from Kearney, about 30 minutes north of Kansas City, said he's seeking guidance from the federal government.
The bill also doesn't address the heart of tension between religious groups and gay rights groups: whether same-sex couples should have the right to wed.
Members of the Missouri Baptist Convention are concerned that endorsing Berry's measure would be seen as accepting the Supreme Court's ruling, policy director Don Hinkle said.
"We believe that the Bible is literally the words of God, and we're to keep his commandments," Hinkle said. "And he makes it very clear that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman."
Democratic House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty said the issue was settled at the federal level, calling the bill "absolutely unnecessary." She also warned that the whopping 386-page bill has unknown consequences, potentially causing problems for couples in domestic unions who move out of state.
And there's the possibility that the measure could chip away at the significance of marriage.
"If you replace marriage with domestic union, will people still take that contract as seriously?" Missouri Catholic Conference Executive Director Mike Hoey said.
Most Americans "don't want marriage to disappear," Warbelow said.
"There is something about marriage," she said. "People don't grow up dreaming about being in civil unions or domestic partnerships."
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