BILL MINOR: New law opens door for return of Mississippi marriage mills

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – We can’t lure cotton mills to Mississippi any more, but now we’re evidently going after marriage mills. Under a newly-enacted law, we could become Reno South – wedding chapels, frock-tailed preachers and all.
Astonishingly, in one fell swoop, the Republican-controlled Legislature has wiped out the state’s 55-year-old law requiring a three-day waiting period and a blood test to get a marriage license. Gov. Phil Bryant, who seems to be the state’s self-proclaimed morality monitor, signed it.
Republican Sen. Melanie Sojourner of Natchez, the bill’s sponsor, said local tourism folks asked for the measure to lure more out-of-state couples to wed at the city’s stately old mansions. The freshman lawmaker said her research led her to believe an easier marriage law would be an incentive for more in-state couples to take wedding vows. “An increasing number of couples, not just in Mississippi, are living together without marrying,” she said.
No matter Sojourner’s good intentions, many will conclude the whole idea of dismantling a long-established law relating to life choices, smacks of Johnny-come-lately soul savers.
It so happens I was closely covering the Legislature when Sections 53-1-5 and 53-1-7 – the marriage waiting period/blood test laws – were enacted. They were a major legislative reform prompted by the state’s unflattering reputation as a “Gretna Green,” a haven of runaway marriages because of its lax no-wait marriage laws.
Mississippi’s quickie marriages had become a cottage industry for fee-paid circuit clerks and justices of the peace, particularly bordering Tennessee and the burgeoning Memphis metropolis.
Marshall County Rep. John L. Kennedy in the 1950s led the campaign for marriage law reform over protests from the politically powerful circuit clerks and JP’s. Alcorn County Circuit Clerk Rubel Phillips (later a GOP gubernatorial candidate, now deceased) built a fat nest-egg from his lucrative marriage license business.
Ex-Gov. William Winter, once a Mississippi House member, remembers working with Kennedy for passage of the marriage law reform. The good-looking, aggressive Kennedy, then a rising star with a bright political future, was struck down by cancer, and died at an early age.
(Of note, circuit clerks are still fee-paid officials whose gross incomes, while supposedly capped by law but allowing additional pay, sometimes total as much as $350,000. Staff is paid from their gross.) Existing fees by law allow circuit clerks to charge $20 each for recording marriage licenses, recording consent of parents, recording medical certificates, recording proof of age, and issuing licenses.
At the time the marriage law was enacted, such communicable diseases as HIV-aids were unknown, so the mandatory blood test in the 1957 law only speaks to testing for syphilis. State health department officials tell me they have never used the wedding license blood tests as reliable data for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) because targeted testing in highest risk areas is more effective. One official added: “Any testing is good.” The health agency, however, takes no stand on the new marriage waiting law that eliminates a blood test performed in a laboratory approved by the board of health.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.