A Republican-led bill in Alabama’s state legislature could radically alter the institution of marriage for Alabamians.
The bill was written in reaction to a federal judge striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban, and sponsors say it could clear up confusion and protect religious rights. But activists say the bill’s implications would reach far beyond the LGBT community, and claim it is little more than an attempt to remove rights under the guise of religious freedom.
The bill allows ministers and judges to opt out of performing or – critically – recognizing any marriage that defies their convictions. The bill, the Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act, also allows religiously affiliated social organizations to deny service on the basis of religion, activists said.
Legal experts say religiously affiliated hospitals could refuse visits from a sick patient’s spouse, on the basis that their marriage defies their religious convictions.
Judges could refuse to grant a divorce if divorce was against their religious beliefs; a Catholic judge could refuse to marry a Hindu, Muslim or Jewish couple, Susan Watson, executive director with Alabama’s American Civil Liberties Union, said.
“We probably haven’t even uncovered all the things that it could … the unintended consequences of this bill,” said Watson. “Well, I don’t know if they’re unintended.”
The bill is sponsored by Republican representative Jim Hill, whose base is in Moody, a city of roughly 12,000 residents about 100 miles north of Montgomery. Hill served as a district judge in St Clair County for 16 years before being elected as a circuit judge, where he served until shortly before his election to the state house.
“You’ll see that this deals with nothing in the world but who is authorized to [solemnize marriage],” said Hill, in a phone interview with the Guardian. “It does not speak to any other issue.”
Hill said he introduced the legislation after receiving “a number of phone calls” from ministers and probate judges – “asking: ‘Are we now going to be required to perform [same-sex marriages]?’
“Hopefully it will clear up any confusion.”
But LGBT activists say the bill is little more than a veiled attempt to legalize discrimination. What’s more, activists said many are upset that the state continues to resist the right for same-sex couples to marry.
“I cannot tell you how many individuals are just embarrassed and outraged that the [Alabama] supreme court and our legislature wishes to continue to stand in the way of same-sex marriage,” said Equality Alabama board chair Ben Cooper. He called the bill “highly alarming”.
The state’s judiciary was already in turmoil Wednesday , as the bill – known as HB56 – moved through the judiciary committee for debate that afternoon.
The Alabama supreme court ruled in favor of two conservative groups and ordered the state’s 68 probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The ruling is a political minefield for local judges, who are elected.
Federal courts have already ruled on the issue, a mandate that would seem to supersede the state supreme court’s judgement. Human Rights Campaign called the ruling “ outrageous and baffling ”. The US supreme court is expected to rule on same-sex marriage in June.
“We could be going back 50 years with this,” said Cooper. “This affects all married individuals, not just those that are LGBT.”
The bill is expected to move through the house with little opposition. Hill vice-chairs the judiciary committee, where the bill is being debated Wednesday.
“The legal team is just working in a frenzy right now,” said Watson. “They were on calls last night, they were on calls this morning, they have a call at 3pm. They’re doing research.
“Let’s put it this way – we have a super-duper [Republican] majority here in Alabama,” she said. “It could easily be passed.”
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