By Susan Withrow Murphy
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
A new law has changed the way couples tie the knot in Alabama and some believe the new process could be a model for other states since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages.
As far as Alabama couples are concerned, gone is the marriage license requirement under which every other U.S. state currently operates. Replacing the license is a certificate obtained on the internet that must be signed by the couple while witnessed by a notary then filed at the probate court within 30 days. If you wish to know about SECURE Act, then it is best for you to check it out here! Under this new law, no ceremony is required to solemnize the occasion. But what are the precedents, merits and potential complications to Alabama’s new marriage law and how might it affect pastors, churches and couples seeking to marry?
An Historic Look at Marriage
Religious and political dissenters of state-issued licenses have argued that marriage is a natural right and not a privilege to be granted by the state. Among U.S. states, marriage licenses were not uniformly issued until 1929.
Just six years later, primarily for reasons of public health, couples were required to obtain blood tests before receiving their license. As tests became too costly and sexually transmitted diseases became easier to treat, states began discontinuing blood tests to marry. However, obtaining a license and holding a civil or religious ceremony remained a requirement for marriage in all states until Alabama decided otherwise in 2019.
Religious Freedom in Alabama
Seeing the legal winds changing on marriage, on March 3, 2015, the Southeast Law Institute (SLI) petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court on behalf of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP) and Alabama Policy Institute (API) to uphold the constitutionality of marriage as between one man and one woman in the State of Alabama. Five months later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex “marriage” was a constitutional right in all states, overruling Alabama’s law.
Christian probate judges faced a moral dilemma in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to Eric Johnston, president of SLI and legal advisor to Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP). After Obergefell, several Alabama judges refused to issue any marriage licenses. They excused themselves based on ambiguous wording of a statute regarding probate judges’ duties. However, these judges were generally expected to issue marriage licenses in Alabama. Litigation against them was expected if they refused to comply with the Supreme Court decision.
Months before Obergefell, in an effort to protect the religious freedoms of dissenting probate court judges, SLI began sending proposals to Alabama legislators that would recognize judges’ religious rights and excuse them from having to issue same-sex “marriage” licenses.
“We spent thousands of hours in an effort to preserve religious freedoms in Alabama,” Johnston said. “Legislators failed and, in some cases, refused to support those proposals.”
Senator Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) proposed a change that would return marriage to contractual law so probate judges need not be involved in issuing licenses. This change removed any threat to the religious principles of objecting judges.
“The new law is a last-ditch effort to work with the circumstances and cultural changes we face today,” said Joe Godfrey, executive director of ALCAP, which works closely with churches and Christian ministries to represent their interests in state government.
The Alabama Policy Institute (API) called Alabama’s new marriage law “a sensible and principled compromise … that might be a model for other states.” Further, in light of Obergefell, API says the [Alabama] law “accommodates both the opinion of the court while protecting the right of state officials who cannot affirm a conception of marriage that they understand to be false.”
Marriage: Sacred or Common?
“Government is not God,” said Alan Floyd, lead teaching pastor of Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile. “Marriage is a sacred covenant, not just another social contract.”
Instead of defending marriage, Floyd believes churches should start teaching and re-teaching marriage — what it means in the context of the Bible and society — to counter any misunderstanding. Cottage Hill requires couples to receive approved premarital counseling before Floyd or any other Cottage Hill minister performs a marriage ceremony.
“Many in today’s generation have a romanticized view that marriage is basically the government’s affirmation of romantic love between two willing people,” said Floyd. “A biblical understanding of marriage is that the couple is giving themselves one to the other, and an accountability exists, a public accountability for the marriage, for the wedding.”
He noted that “church” weddings have decreased over the past five years or more in favor of outdoor or venue weddings, where he has officiated. Since the law passed in August, he saw no significant change of the number of weddings he or other Cottage Hill ministers officiated in the month of September over the previous year. But the lasting effects of the law remain to be seen.
Adjustments for Pastors
“The new marriage law is probably going to seem like a radical change,” said Jim Swedenburg, director of the office of Cooperative Program and Stewardship Development for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “It will cut down on ministers being asked to do marriages for free. Not having a license will be what’s strange to our ministers. In the Christian community, I don’t think it will change anything. Christians will still use ministers.”
Swedenburg said concerns have been raised regarding administrative details that could impact couples, pastors and staff, and church policy. He advises that if a church policy does not exist regarding the use of outside officiants, one should be established. Since a legal requirement for a ceremony no longer exists, and couples who choose to marry in a church may have someone in mind to officiate other than the church pastor.
Pastors should decide if the requirement for notarization of the Alabama Marriage Certificate should be completed before, during or after the ceremony. As a courtesy to the couple, having a church staff member available to notarize the form just prior to the ceremony would ensure the legal and ceremony date are the same.
Ultimately, it is the couple’s responsibility to provide the proper notarized documentation. However, if the pastor is concerned that the ceremony he is performing is legal in the eyes of the state as well as in the eyes of God, he should make certain the document is signed in front of a notary before the couple leaves the church or venue.
Salt and Light
Godfrey says it is up to Christians, and especially pastors, to stay informed, speak within their congregations to the important issues and stay vigilant in defending religious freedoms.
“We have natural conflict just by teaching biblical values. Pastors and churches don’t want to be known for what they are against, so they hesitate to get involved,” said Godfrey. “But we need — and are called — to be salt and light in our culture.
“Christians must engage their legislators, and most importantly, pray,” he says. “Biblical marriage is one of many foundational freedoms being redefined by a well-organized and vocal few. Our religious freedoms are precious, and once they’re removed, it will be a long hard battle to get them back.”
The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ website has recommendations for church policies and best practices regarding marriage and gender on their website, www.alsbom.org/safe under the “Gender Issues” link.
Tips for couples regarding Alabama’s new marriage law Organization is key for all weddings, but the new law adds one twist if you wish to be legally married on the day of your ceremony. Take these steps and all will go smoothly.
- Couples can obtain blank copies of the “Alabama Marriage Certificate” at http://alabamapublichealth.gov/vitalrecords/marriage-certificates.html.
- Each person must sign before a notary. The most recent signature on the certificate determines the wedding date (if signing at different times). Notaries can be found at UPS stores, or on thumbtack.com, where prices range from $5 to $100 based on travel expenses and time of day. Some churches also have notaries on staff.
- The completed, notarized form must be delivered within 30 days to any Alabama probate court for recording if the marriage is to be valid.
After the probate court records the Marriage Certificate it is forwarded to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Center for Health Statistics. You may request certified copies through that office. Visit the website or call 334-206-5418.
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