BILL MINOR: Mississippi’s quick-marriage law kicks in on Sunday

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – For a state that prides itself for promoting family values, a measure that becomes law on Sunday wiping out a longstanding provision for a three-day waiting period and blood test for couples to get a marriage license is a stunning reversal of our purported high moral standards.
You’d think we would be doing the opposite: Enacting laws to elevate the sanctity of exchanging marriage vows. We have a terrible record of marriages ending in divorces. Mississippi’s divorce rate is among the highest in the nation, incidentally, twice that of “liberal” Massachusetts.
Now it seems we’re taking steps by installing quickie marriages to feed more likely candidates into the divorce mills. It’s being hailed by the tourism industry as a marketing tool to lure out-of-state couples to get hitched here in one of our stately old mansions or Gulf Coast fun spots.
Never in my many years of chronicling Mississippi’s political and social scene have I seen any such legislative action framed as a victory for economic development.
Have we sunk so low in our tourism quest that we’ll package quickie marriages as a bauble to harvest more cash?
The way the marriage mill measure breezed through the Republican-controlled Legislature in April and was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant – the state’s self-proclaimed morality monitor – you’d think the three-day waiting marriage period license law was some obsolete appendage with no history.
I was there covering the Legislature when it was enacted at a special session in 1957. It was a major legislative reform, passed in response to ending Mississippi’s reputation as a “Gretna Green,” a haven for runaway marriages of teenagers because of the state’s no-wait marriage laws.
A cottage industry had built up back then by fee-paid circuit clerks, selling licenses at $20 to $60 a pop. Justices of the peace (now called justice court judges) set up shop nearby to perform weddings. Opposed by the politically influential clerks, the reform measure was primarily pushed by Northeast Mississippi lawmakers. For years they had heard the loudest complaints about Memphis teenagers who were flocking into Mississippi for quickie marriages.
Of note, one of the leaders for the reform bill was William Winter, who had been a state legislator. We, of course know Winter went on to become governor, and today at age 89 is Mississippi’s elder statesman. He still considers the waiting period/blood test legislation to be good law.
Religious leaders in this Bible-belt state stood by and said nothing against the bill to strip time-tested regulations from the state’s marriage license law in a bizarre scheme sold by backers as a revenue producer. Remember Mississippi’s unreal prohibition law? The standing joke was the preachers had their law but the wets had their liquor.
Perhaps the “Hospitality State” welcoming signs along the casino-studded Gulf Coast will be taken down and replaced by new ones touting the state as a one-stop destination where you can “lose your virginity and bank account the same day.”
At least, reporters writing articles about this outrageous uprooting of such a law of fundamental importance to a civilized society should not swallow as gospel the rhetoric of tourism agents as one Clarion-Ledger writer did recently. Maybe our policy makers will wake up to what has happened when we pick up another unflattering label as Reno South.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.