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Missouri Republican pushes for constitutional change to recognize same-sex marriages

Missouri Rep. Chris Sander has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to say valid marriages are between “two individuals.”
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
Missouri Rep. Chris Sander has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to say valid marriages are between “two individuals.”

With the right to same-sex marriage now protected by federal statute, a Jackson County Republican lawmaker believes it is time for Missouri to retire a portion of the state constitution that says the only valid marriages are “between a man and a woman.”

Rep. Chris Sander, R-Lone Jack, for the second year has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to say valid marriages are between “two individuals.”

“My intent with the language is to have the Missouri Constitution in line with federal law because I believe federal law is the correct ruling,” Sander, one of two openly gay Republicans serving in the Missouri General Assembly, said in an interview with the Missouri Independent.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which codifies the right to same-sex marriage recognized in the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. Along with protecting same-sex marriage rights, it also protects the rights of interracial couples to marry.

“This country has a history of saying who can’t get married in an ugly way,” Sander said.

The state constitutional language on marriage, adopted in 2004, no longer has any legal authority but will remain on the books until changed.

The most comparable historic parallel is school segregation. It was not until 1976, more than two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools, before lawmakers put repeal of Missouri’s constitutional provision requiring separate schools for Black and white children on a ballot. Even then, it failed in 56 of the state’s counties.

But by trying to change it, Sander is likely to run headlong into a debate within his own party.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a likely GOP candidate for governor in 2024, jumped into the federal debate on the day the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate. He lobbied, unsuccessfully, for retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt to change his vote at the last minute and oppose the bill.

In contrast to Ashcroft’s hard-line stance, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who is actively running for governor in 2024, has been more open to supporting LGBTQ rights. Kehoe voted in 2013 in favor of adding anti-discrimination protections to state law.

Inside the Missouri House, state Rep. Michael Davis, R-Belton, wants the legislature to chastise Blunt for his vote in favor of marriage equity. He said he will introduce a remonstrance of Blunt when the House convenes on Jan. 4.

That is one day after Blunt leaves office.

Blunt betrayed Missouri voters by supporting the Respect for Marriage Act, Davis said, as well as by voting for the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021 and supporting aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

“He has gone against what he has campaigned on,” Davis said, “and he did that on the Respect for Marriage Act, gun control, and he has not been a fiscal conservative.”

Marriage, he said, is not a federal responsibility. Davis supports legislation to rename the legal joining of two individuals to “domestic union contracts.” Parties to the contract, whether male-female or same-sex unions, would not need a ceremony to validate it. The parties could, if they wish, have a civil or religious ceremony of marriage.

“Marriage should not be under the purview of the government whatsoever,” Davis said.

Sander said he accepts that his proposal may not find support among a majority of Republican legislators. But there are enough Republicans who he expects to be favorable that, with the support of Democrats, there will be a majority of the chamber who back it.

The section of the Missouri Constitution Sander wants to change passed with a majority of almost 71% in 2004. It ceased to be the controlling law in Missouri as early as 2013 – two years before the Obergefell decision – when the IRS started allowing same-sex couples to file joint tax returns.

Then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, ordered the Missouri Department of Revenue to do the same, because Missouri’s income tax was legally linked to the federal tax.

And in 2014, a Boone County judge granted a divorce to a couple legally married in Massachusetts because the federal constitution requires every state to give “full faith and credit” to the public acts of other states.

The majority of 2004 is not the majority today, Sander said.

“A majority of Americans would like to see any two individuals be allowed to be married,” he said.

Along with Blunt’s retirement, the new Congressional session that begins Jan. 3 will see the exit from office of Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville. She first gained statewide political prominence as the spokeswoman for the campaign to pass the 2004 state amendment.

In one of her last floor speeches, Hartzler tearfully urged House colleagues to vote against it. Hartzler, who gave up her seat in an unsuccessful bid for the GOP Senate nomination, “Protect religious liberty,” Hartzler said. “Protect people of faith. And protect Americans who believe in the true meaning of marriage.”

Those words did not impress Sander.

“I didn’t agree with the sentiment that is in the video,” he said. “Freedom of religion is not just freedom of your religion. It is also the freedom of my religion.”

Changing the constitution’s language on marriage would also help contrast the state, which will host FIFA World Cup matches in 2026 in Kansas City, with Qatar, Sander said. Homosexuality is punishable with a prison term and the Qatari government has tried to ban all expressions of solidarity with the LGBTQ by players and fans during this year’s World Cup tournament.

“I live in Jackson County, a host for the World Cup in 2026,” he said, “and I would hope Missouri would be respectful on the world stage.”

His proposed constitutional amendment is about freedom for everyone and represents the best of conservative principles, Sander said.

“I am very Republican and I am a Log Cabin gay Republican and it blows their mind,” Sander said. “Sexual orientation has nothing to with Democrat/Republican. It has to do with freedom and liberty.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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