State Representative Adam Schnelting, R-St. Charles, wants to change the legal definition of marriage to civil unions. During a Missouri House General Laws Committee hearing today about Schnelting’s bill, he says he wants to replace marriage licenses with contracts of domestic unions – sparking opposition by some traditional marriage supporters and the gay rights community.

Capitol Rotunda (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

The interpretation and intent of House Bill 2173 varies greatly from person to person and lawmaker to lawmaker. Arguments ranged from what the bill would do to marriages involving children and adoption rights, gay couples, immigration status, federal benefits, and how a civil union would be recognized in other states for married couples moving to and from Missouri.

Schnelting, a licensed minister and former pastor, says marriage is not the government’s business and his goal is to treat everyone equally.

“Whether you’re religious, whether you’re nonreligious,” he says. “Whether you’re straight, whether you’re a member of the LGBT community, this is about restoring the government to its proper role. If I don’t need a license for my Second Amendment rights, I certainly do not need the government’s permission or a license to marry.”

Schnelting says under his nearly 400-page bill, he thinks society would still call a marriage a marriage.

“First and foremost, this bill does not abolish marriage,” he says. “Our law states that marriage law is considered in law as a civil contract – from the standpoint of the state nothing more nothing less. That’s still in place. It doesn’t make it any less of a marriage. It’s just reducing it, stripping it down to it’s most basic legal definition.”

He says when government is allowed to intrude into private matters, it is usually contentious.

“Because then you have one section of America pitting itself against another,” he says.

Representative Wes Rogers, D-Kansas City, says the bill would reduce marriage to a couple being “civically in love” and indicates the intent of the measure has to do with gay marriage.

“Our marriage certificate says marriage and it doesn’t matter what you think and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If I was gay and wanted to marry a man, and I have a certificate that says marriage, I’m having a hard time understanding why it’s your business,” he says.

Schnelting agrees that it’s not the government’s business.

“This 382-pages, this is what happens when we allow government to get out of control,” he says.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, says she opposes the legislation out of potential unintended consequences of children’s rights.

Representative Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, calls the legislation divisive, hurtful to LGBT individuals, and would be going backwards.

“I want to make sure that love can be love and marriage can be marriage and that we’re not trying to undue something that the U.S. Supreme Court said is the right thing to do,” says McCreery. “Since gay marriage became the law of the land, my marriage has not been impacted at all. I don’t think anybody in this room can raise their hand and honestly say that since gay marriage was made legal that their marriages have deteriorated. I feel like this bill is kind of a solution looking for a problem.”

According to Schnelting, the proposal would not attack government benefits for couples with a marriage license or a civil union contract. If so, he says he would change the bill to ensure those benefits would work the same way as they do now. Speaking on behalf of LGBT organization PROMO, Washington University Law Professor Denise Lieberman disagrees with Schnelting’s statement and says more than 1,000 federal benefits are attached to the institution of legal marriage.

“Really important stuff right, like social security, like Veterans benefits, like surviving spousal benefits, immigration status, Medicare,” she says.

Lieberman goes on to say she thinks the legislation is unconstitutional and federal law, which recognizes a marriage as a marriage, will trump state law.

Karl and Lisa Weslin of southwest Missouri’s Springfield oppose the bill and fear it would put their retirement years in jeopardy, including their social security, insurances, and medical and survivor benefits. Lisa Weslin says marriage is the bedrock of society.

“If the state of Missouri were to undermine our marriage, we have five daughters who are married and thirteen grandchildren, for those we hope to set an example of the sanctity of marriage. Marriage itself represents a spiritual and mystical union that is imbued with meaning much deeper and more profound than a domestic union,” she says.

The committee has not yet voted on the bill.

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