Alabama fundamentally changed the way it handles the legal side of marriage last week, but while some public officials believe the new process is more streamlined, others have expressed concern about some of the potential unintended consequences that might result from the law that created it.
In the past, persons wishing to get married in Alabama would file an application for a marriage license with their county probate court, which would then approve or deny the application based on an evaluation of the parties seeking to get married. If approved, the license would then be issued by that probate court.
However, that has changed as of Aug. 29.
Now, a couple getting married need only fill out a “marriage certificate,” have it notarized and submit it to any of the state’s 68 probate courts. That’s it. After that, they’re married in the state of Alabama.
Under the new law, the probate court has no authority to verify the accuracy of the information represented on the from, and instead, records “marriage certificate” like any other public record. The new process also eliminates the requirement for marriages to be “solemnized” in an official ceremony.
The change was the result of legislation passed earlier this year, sponsored by State Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, who first introduced a similar bill back in 2015 — the same year a majority of the United States Supreme Court ruled state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstiutional.
Albritton said that was a catalyst for his intital bill because the SCOTUS ruling put Alabama’s marriage laws, which limited marriage to heterosexual unions, in jeapordy. While the bill has changed some after five years of roadblocks in the legislature, Albritton said the intent has remained the same: to get the state of Alabama out of the marriage business.
“This was about removing state officials’ authority to restrict or restrain individuals from obtaining a marriage license,” Albritton said. “We have separated the church and state so that the church can hold its sacraments in any way that it chooses and the state can do what it needs to do with the contractual issues.”
However, the new changes have left some officials — including Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis — with a number of questions about who is responsible for verifying whether couples seeking a marriage certificate are legally allowed to be married in Alabama. It used to be the probate court’s job, but in a meeting with local clergy last month, Davis made it clear his office wouldn’t be doing that anymore.
“The old law had procedures where the probate judges checked on all of this stuff before we issued a marriage license. Now all of that has changed,” he said. “Our new role will be just like it is for deeds and mortgages. If a person comes in with the form and they’ve paid the filing fee, it’s going to be recorded.”
Because of the uncertainty, Davis has encouraged everyone involved in the marriage process — from the clergy to notaries — to keep records and document what they do. Earlier this year, Davis sent more than a dozen questions to Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office and requested an opinion on how certain aspects of the marriage process would be handled based upon the way the law is written.
One of those questions dealt with whether couples had to be present in the state of Alabama to obtain a marriage certificate. In his response last week, Marshall said that based on the new law, those seeking to be married under Alabama’s new law don’t even have to be citizens of the United States.
“Nothing in the act prohibits two citizens of a foreign country from submitting documents by mail and being considered married under Alabama law, nor does it require them to ever be physically present in the state,” the opinion from Marshall’s office reads. “Though this conclusion may be unforeseen, in interpreting a statute, this office does not consider the intent or desirability of the legislature’s policy decisions, but relies instead upon the text of the law as it is written.”
Asked about those “unforeseen” issues, Albritton said his bill didn’t mention a citizenship or a state residency requirement because they weren’t in the previous law. He also said notaries would be able to verify most information when confirming the identity of couples signing the certificate in person.
“There was nothing on the form about it and nothing in the statute about it,” he added. “I was trying to get the bill passed so we could have a legal law governing marriage in the state of Alabama. It is not a matter of leaving anything out, I simply didn’t put in what was not in the existing law.”
When asked whether the legislature might consider amending the law at a later date to address any of these concerns about citizenship and residency, Albritton said he wasn’t sure if that would have the support to get passed. He also suggested it could “raise a whole host of other issues around the state.”
“There’s never a perfect law, but I was engaged with the Attorney General’s office before and during this process, so it wasn’t that they were not asked,” Albritton said. “I don’t know of any group that was left out other than those that did not want to participate. I don’t mean to sound offended, but I’m somewhat irritated we’ve wound up with these questions when they could have been addressed beforehand.”
For now, the new marriage process is going forward as written. The certificates can be found online through the probate court and through the Alabama Department of Public Health. They still have to be notarized and can only be submitted to the probate court in person or through the U.S. mail.
The forms needed to obtain a marriage certificate are very similar to the marriage license application forms used in the old system. More information about the new process can be found at probate.mobilecountyal.gov/marriage.asp.
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