Three months from now, couples wanting to get married in Alabama no longer will have to apply for a marriage license and exchange vows.
Instead, they will simply file an affidavit in probate court, and they’ll be married.
Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation making the change last week. It takes effect at the end of August.
State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), whose district includes Escambia County, northern Baldwin and all or part of two other counties, has been pushing the legislation since 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
Since then, a handful of probate judges have refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone rather than solemnize same-sex unions.
“It gets the state out of granting permission for people to get married, which a license is,” he said. “Now, if a couple chooses to be married, that’s between themselves, or their church, their family. The state would not have a say there.”
Albritton had, perhaps, the most impactful legislative session of any member of the Mobile or Baldwin delegations. He was the Senate sponsor of the controversial abortion ban that passed the Legislature, and he sponsored a lottery bill that passed the Senate but failed to clear the state House. On top of all that, he also was responsible for shepherding the state’s General Fund budget through the upper chamber.
But Albritton’s marriage initiative is the law that average Alabamians might feel the most.
The benefits of marriage remain the same, and so do the legal requirements. Those getting married must attest that they are of legal age, that they are not already married and that they are not blood relatives. They can have a religious ceremony or some other celebration if they want, but no ceremony will be required as under current law, and neither the couple nor an officiant will be required to send a license back to probate court.
The only legal document is the affidavit, and Albritton said forms will be printed to make that easy.
Maurice White and Cherelle Ward, who filled out an application for a license at the Mobile County probate office Wednesday under the system that soon will end, said they like the change.
“That’s good. More convenient,” White said. “They’re still making money off of us. … They’ll cut out the middle man.”
White joked: “They ought to put a chapel down here, like Vegas. Why not?”
After same-sex marriage became legal in Alabama in 2015, 1,392 couples rushed to get married, but the number has declined since. From 2015 through 2017, a total of 3,046 gay couples received marriage licenses – about 3 percent of all marriages.
Albritton’s bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses, but it was not unanimous. Some gay-rights supporters viewed the effort suspiciously. Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-Birmingham), the Legislature’s only openly gay member, told FOX10 News that he voted against it because he was troubled about the its origins.
Although he said he agrees with aspects of the new law and agrees it will make it easier for both gay and straight couples to marry, he added that the genesis for it was the refusal of some probate judges to treat gay couples fairly.
“It came from the fact that it was to protect people who were unwilling to do their job,” he said.
Rafferty said there also are practical concerns, such as whether marriages in Alabama under the new system will be recognized and honored by other states, although he acknowledged that it appears the bill’s authors have taken care to ensure that is the case.
“It’s not going to be doomsday,” he said.
Jamie Foster, executive director of Equality Alabama, agreed implementation of the law seems like it will be “simple and straightforward” and that it represents an improvement over the status quo in which couples in some counties have to drive to another county to get married.
“This is probably the best outcome, or best compromise, that we could have come to,” he said.
Probate judges are taking a wait-and-see approach to a law that for now is unfamiliar. Shannon Smith, the chief clerk of the probate office in Autauga County – one of the ones that stopped issuing marriage licenses in 2015 – told FOX10 News that marriages likely would resume.
“We don’t know that much (about) what’s in it,” she said. “We’re waiting to see how that would work.’
Dean Mott, chief probate clerk in Baldwin County – where marriage licenses have continued to be issued – said he does not expect things to change too much for engaged couples.
“We expect to get further direction from the state,” he said. “I think all of the probate courts are kind of at a stand-still at this point, as this is fairly new legislation. And so, we are awaiting direction as to how we’re going to implement this new law.”
Albritton said he always has tried to strike a balance and believes he succeeded since he has taken fire from both sides of the marriage divide.
“I got criticized from the right and left. Judge Roy Moore was against it from the get-go,” he said, referring to the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, who instructed probate judges to ignore a federal court ruling striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
“Marriage will be what couples and what the church say it is and not what the state says it is,” he added.