Sharon Carpenter Is Not The Patron Saint of Marriage Equality

UPDATED 10/15/2014 with additional comments relating to Riverfront Times cover story, Sharon Carpenter’s Strange Fight for the Recorder of Deeds Office,” by Danny Wicentowski.

As the recorder of deeds, only she could issue the marriage licenses. Only her signature could make them valid in the city, though they’d be simultaneously in violation of a Missouri state constitutional amendment.

“Obviously we needed Sharon Carpenter to physically issue the licenses, but the mayor has been talking about marriage equality since 2004,”says Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

Both statements are incorrect. In most First Class Counties in Missouri, including the City of St. Louis, the Recorder of Deeds does not personally issue/sign Marriage Licenses, other than on special occasions for friends and family. Licenses are issued by Marriage License Clerks using a stamp with the Recorder’s signature or a License form with the Recorder’s signature imprinted. It is the Clerk who personally affixes her or his signature to the License.

If you look closely at the Marriage Licenses issued the evening of June 25, 2014,  you will see that Sharon Quigley Carpenter actually signed in the space for a Clerk’s signature.

The public still does not have the full story  on Carpenter’s pro-marriage equality conversion. Where is the letter to the City Counselor from Sharon Quigley Carpenter requesting legal counsel on the matter of issuing the Licenses. The City Counselor’s opinion was issued. But why hasn’t the request been released? Has attorney-client privilege not been waived by Carpenter? If so, why not?


2014, St. Louis City became the first Missouri county to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. Three gay couples and one lesbian couple were issued marriage licenses by St. Louis City Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter and then were married in separate ceremonies in the office of Mayor Francis G. Slay.

It was, by all accounts, well scripted, flawlessly directed, perfectly executed, beautiful theater, as any good historic wedding should be. And the Recorder of Deeds Office played a crucial role in issuing the licenses but the Recorder was a walk on character.

In some news reports, the Mayor issued the licenses and performed the ceremonies. It was his event. Sharon Quigley Carpenter showed up and played her part but only because she had been reassured that her pension was not in jeopardy. It was risk free publicity for a candidate with re-election problems.

There was no Road to Damascus moment. Sharon Quigley Carpenter was no champion for marriage equality prior to signing the four licenses.

In March 1996, the City of San Francisco issued marriage licenses to gays and lesbians and across the country same-sex couples began appearing at marriage license issuance offices.

In St. Louis City, a two page statement was to be given to any “same gender” couples requesting licenses from then Recorder Carpenter’s office.

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A three page statement was to be issued to any Media making inquiries.
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At the time, then Recorder Carpenter told me that gays and lesbians should write marriage contracts and pay to record them at the Recorder’s office. She believed that was a good compromise to the gay marriage issue. She believed strongly that the word “marriage” belonged to churches.

In 1996, Senate Bill 768, relating to the Missouri Family Trust, a program for the care of persons with mental and/or physical disabilities, was amended in the Missouri House of Representatives to include:

1. It is the public policy of this state to recognize marriage only between a man and a woman. 2. Any purported marriage not between a man and a woman is invalid. 3. No recorder shall issue a marriage license, except to a man and a woman.

The legislation was adopted as amended, signed into law by Governor Mel Carnahan, and the marriage definition provision became Section 451.022 RSMo.

Then Recorder Carpenter did not lobby against the amendment, did not urge the Recorders Association of Missouri to lobby against the amendment, did not ask the Governor to veto the bill.

In June 1998, the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen passed our Domestic Partner Registry ordinance. Then Recorder Carpenter made no effort to acquire the new service for the Recorder’s Marriage License Department.

In 2001, House Bill 157, relating to the maximum number of days clergypersons and judges have to return a signed Marriage License to the issuing Recorder of Deeds, was amended in the Missouri Senate to require Social Security Numbers on Marriage Applications and add to the 1996 marriage definition in Section 451.022 RSMo:

4. A marriage between persons of the same-sex will not be recognized for any purposes in this state even when valid where contracted.

The legislation was adopted as amended and signed into law by Governor Bob Holden.

Then Recorder Carpenter did not lobby against the amendment, did not urge the Recorders Association to lobby against the amendment, did not ask the Governor to veto the bill. This was the second time that the Recorders Association and Carpenter remained silent on legislation related to marriage license issuance, a key job of Recorders in Missouri.

In 2002, then Recorder Carpenter, Mayor Francis G. Slay, State Senator Harry Kennedy, Comptroller Darlene Green, and others, worked together to pass state legislation transferring the City’s Vital Records services from the City’s Health Department to the Recorder’s Office. Everyone agreed it made sense to consolidate birth and death records services in the same department as marriage records and in the same building and floor as personal property tax waivers and the City Hall DMV office.

This would have been an excellent time to also consolidate the Domestic Partner Registry with the Recorder’s Marriage License Department. But it didn’t happen. Then Recorder Carpenter told me that the Mayor would not give her an additional full time employee as part of the deal.

In 2004, the Missouri General Assembly submitted to Missouri voters Constitutional Amendment #2 (Senate Joint Resolution 29) to amend Missouri’s Bill of Rights to define marriage in the Missouri Constitution:

Article 1, Section 33. That to be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman.

Then Recorder Carpenter did not lobby against the constitutional amendment and did not urge the Recorders Association to lobby against the constitutional amendment.

Missouri voters approved the referendum issue on August 3, 2004:  Yes 1,055,771 (70.6%) to  No 439,529 (29.4%).

The City of Saint Louis was the only Missouri county where the ballot issue failed:  Yes 28,290 (47%) to No 31,887 (53%).

But it failed in the City without Carpenter’s help. She did not publicly oppose the amendment as Recorder or as 23rd Ward Democratic Committeewoman.

Her ward organization’s sample ballot- distributed at the polls on election day- did not mention the anti-marriage constitutional amendment. I know because I prepared, with direction from Carpenter, the sample ballot to go to the printer. Carpenter said she had spoken with Francis R. Slay, the 23rd Ward Committeeman (and Mayor’s father), and he (the Committeeman) wanted the issue left off the ballot. Given the number of gays and lesbians in the extended Slay Family and that Mayor Slay opposed the amendment, this did not seem right. A few months later, Slay (the Committeeman) told me that his sample ballot conversation with Carpenter had not included a discussion of the anti-marriage amendment. She had made the decision on her own.

In January 2014, then Recorder Carpenter told me that the Legislature should “give them” (gays and lesbians) “civil unions” but “leave marriage to churches.” She then said, “But I don’t know if that’ll shut’em up” and laughed. I remember the words well because of the mean tone of voice and because of the political context of the conversation. She had asked me if I thought 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn would file as a candidate against her.

As Legislative Chair of the Recorders Association of Missouri, Sharon Quigley Carpenter made no attempt this year or any other year to educate her Recorder colleagues about marriage equality, to ready them for inevitable change, to encourage them to be on the right side of history.

Sharon Quigley Carpenter could have sponsored a workshop on marriage equality at an annual Recorders conference. But she didn’t.

Sharon Quigley Carpenter could have lobbied for marriage equality with PROMO. But she didn’t.

All Sharon Quigley Carpenter did was sign four marriage licenses and get her photograph taken after a lawyer told her the actions would not affect her pension. A Marriage License Clerk could have done the same thing.

– Marie Ceselski

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