Yesterday marked an important deadline in the 2017 legislative session. It was the transmittal deadline for all revenue bills and those bills that created legislative referendums to be voted on by the people. Any of these types of bills that failed to pass from one house to the other are now dead. Among them, unfortunately, is the Montana Locker Room Privacy Act.
On the plus side, House Bill 417, the bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under Montana Human Rights Law is also dead.
You may think with every passing deadline, that the level of anxiety would decrease, and it does, to some extent. But it’s offset by the fact that games are played near the end of a session. And some of those games can have far-reaching consequences. Case in point: Last Friday a bill sponsored by the Senate President was quietly introduced and placed on the fast-track. It’s Senate Bill 375, and the title is, “Generally Revised Marriage Laws.” Generally revised, I’ll say! The bill actually does away with marriage licenses and replaces them with a declaration of marriage that can be filed optionally after a couple has had a marriage ceremony in their church or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s a whopper of a bill, 18 pages thick, mainly striking the marriage license provisions in current law.
These types of bills have become more prevalent after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage. We said 20 years ago that if marriage was ever redefined to include same-sex couples, it would result in the eventual demise of the institution, itself. And this bill is just the latest example.
The knee-jerk reaction to Obergefell is, “Fine, if you want to redefine marriage, then we’ll just get government out of marriage completely.” It’s interesting that these types of bills never came up before marriage was redefined. The Montana bill, in its current form, is a sort of hybrid between our current system and full-blown privatization of marriage. It keeps most of the marriage laws in place, while removing the requirement to get a license.
The problem we have with the bill is the late date of introduction, the fact that it’s being fast-tracked, and the fact that there’s so little time for a complete analysis of the wide-sweeping effects of the bill. I’m reminded of the old saying, that for every deep and complex problem, there’s a simple solution, and it’s wrong.
The bill came up so fast in the Senate that there were no witnesses in favor of passage and very few in opposition. No one knew the bill existed. It is set to pass out of the Senate today and hit the House next week. One witness in opposition talked about the over 1,000 legal benefits of marriage and the fact that we don’t know how this bill could affect the people’s ability to access those benefits, or whether the benefits would be available to the couples’ children.
I was reminded of President Reagan who said his greatest regret from his entire political career was signing California’s first-in-the-nation no-fault divorce law in 1970. It was meant to make the process of divorce simpler and less painful, but it actually swept the nation in the ‘70s and early ‘80s and resulted in an exponential increase in the number of divorces, leaving devastated families in its wake. Could this bill have the same types of unintended consequences? Quite possibly, which is why we’re so concerned. Marriage is the bedrock institution of society, and major changes like this should be carefully considered, not fast-tracked in the closing days of a legislative session.