By LAURA TILLMAN
JACKSON — In Natchez, couples routinely pay top dollar for weddings that recall the antebellum period the city’s mansions evoke. Brides are carted to the altar in horse-drawn carriages. Grooms wait next to towering columns at the townhouses plantation owners built when cotton was king.
Now, Mississippi legislators are hoping to pass a bill they say would sweeten Natchez as a destination wedding draw by eliminating the requirement of a blood test and the three-day waiting period for marriage licenses.
The bill, authored by Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, passed the state Senate this week. Sojourner says that the blood test is antiquated and only checks for syphilis. The testing picks up a small number of the state’s syphilis cases each year.
“Clearly this test has not been an avenue to really be making a difference in this statistic,” Sojourner said. “If there was an immediate reason why for the health and safety of Mississippians that it needed to be done, then we absolutely wouldn’t consider it.”
Sojourner said the three-day wait was originally intended to stop people from rushing into marriage, but that statistics she has analyzed don’t indicate any decrease in divorce rates based on waiting periods.
“We have some unique things in our state that are a drawing card to visitors,” Sojourner said. “Now we need to make sure there aren’t any regulations that make it difficult for people to come here.”
Natchez Director of Tourism Connie Taunton said that couples who plan a wedding from afar and show up unaware of the three-day requirement are typically able to get a waiver from a local judge.
“The waiting period is a hardship for people from away because they have to take three or four days off of work before the wedding, and that cuts into time they’d be able to take off for their honeymoon,” Taunton said.
For more than two decades lawmakers have attempted to accomplish what Sojourner, a first time legislator, hopes to do this year.
Former Rep. Diane Peranich tried to get the bill through multiple times during her last term in office, which ended this year.
Peranich, who represented the coastal town of Pass Christian, said that it would be unlikely for her area to turn into a Las Vegas style strip of wedding chapels.
“They would be small within the scope of what we have,” Peranich said. “This bill was never intended to allow for quickie marriages.”
Legislators say the bill would have an impact on several wedding destinations around the state, including Biloxi and Vicksburg.
The board of the State Health Department took no action on the blood test issue this year, according to spokeswoman Liz Sharlot.
“We are always in favor of people being tested if they have signs or symptoms of an STD,” Sharlot said. “However the number of positive cases that comes back is far less than 1 percent.”