Concerns Over Religious Exemptions Not Enough To Slow Down Marriage Licence Bill

On Friday, Senator Allen Christensen (Republican – Ogden) defended his bill, SB 29 – Utah Marriage Commission Amendments, on the Senate floor – legisiation that would add $20 to the cost of all marriage licenses in the state. Couples would have the ability to receive the $20 back if they attend marriage preparation classes before receiving the license or up to 90 days after the issuance of the license itself; if the rebate goes unclaimed, the funds would be handed over to the Utah Marriage Commission.

In 2016, the Utah Marriage Commission received $300,000 in state funds while, in 2015, approximately 24,300 marriages took place in the state of Utah according to CDC statistics. In order to maintain the Utah Marriage Commission at current levels, more than 60 percent of couples (15,000) would have to fail to claim the fee.

Christensen, Senate Chair of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, would begin by noting that the recently approved state social services budget of $5.5 Billion “takes a lot of money, [and that] a huge amount of this is due to one single reason and that is the breakdown of families. That begins with marriages. Last year there were 10,000 divorces in Utah – and that cost the taxpayers a bunch of money; one estimate is over $200 million a year. This comes from the reality that family fragmentation is the leading cause of poverty, it’s associated with youth delinquency, academic problems, crime, drug use, domestic violence, and a lot more.”

Christensen did not cite the source of this figure, however, Divorcestatistics.info, which is the first Google search to appear when searching for such costs, does state that “the overall cost of getting divorced (emphasis added)…ranges from between $10,000 and $20,000,” which would match Christensen’s $200 million estimate.  Worth noting is that this figure is derived from the individual’s aggregate cost, and not the cost borne by the taxpayers as a whole.

Adding that couples often start with significant problems, Christensen felt that it was in the best interest of the individuals and the state to strike before a couple is too committed to simply end the relationship, adding that nine other states have adopted similar measures in an attempt to strengthen marriage. Christensen’s bill would allow for free courses to be provided online if couples are unable or unwilling to attend classes in person.

At time Christensen would switch between calling the $20 a fee and a discount, calling into question the intent of the legislation.

Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) attempted to move an amendment similar to one proposed by Senator Luz Escamilla (Democrat – Salt Lake City) when she heard the bill in committee. Though the legislation sets forth specific guidelines related to what constitutes “marriage counseling” Christensen’s legislation does allow for those who receive counseling from a religious organization to be exempt from those standards. This religious exemption means that, in theory, those going through a religious organization would not have to meet the same standards as couples that choose a secular counseling option. Davis’ amendment would have removed this provision.

“By excluding some organizations,” Escamilla stated, “we are basically giving them some opportunity to potentially, education the opposite [of what the bill wishes to be taught]…they can teach more of this – and I think religious orginziations will probably teach more than this…we are not restricting them from teaching more, but by saying you are exempt from teaching minimum requirements it is actually counterproductive.”

Despite what sounded like a close voice vote in favor of the amendment, the proposal would fail after a headcount – meaning the religious provision would remain.

Escamilla would close with an explanation of her forthcoming no vote.

“If these classes are critical…I am not sure how, in good faith, anyone can allow organizations to teach what they want to teach without following the minimum topics. If we are already making a statement about what those minimum requirements are and we are saying ‘they shall teach this as a minimum’ and saying ‘but if you are of a religious organization, we just happen to exempt that’ I’m concerned that religious organizations, maybe not the biggest and the largest in this state, such as the LDS or Catholic Church, [but I’m concerned that] they could potentially educate the exact opposite of what we are stating as a state. That really hurts the process and we might as well tell them not to teach anything and just get the exemption and fund the Utah Marriage Commission. So, I will oppose this bill.”

Bill would pass second reading 17-12, and will have one final vote in the Senate. If it passes, it will then move on to the House for its consideration.

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