Sunday, September 11, 2005

What Makes a Marriage?

On left and right coasts, DoMA initiatives are flying and rhetoric is stifling enough to bring the birds to earth. One oft repeated argument from anti-same-sex-marriage camps is that permitting homosexual marriage destroys heterosexual ones.

What's fascinating about this is that those promoting such illogic have a seeming ignorance of what marriage is in law, contrasted to their idealized perception. Most states have muddled government and church definitions a bit in their codes and procedures. Massachusetts on the other hand from the Colonial period has defined it clearly and distinctly as a civil contract.

What makes a marriage under our law is the combination of a valid license and the official solemnization of the civil contract. The solemnizer can be a governor, judge, justice of the peace or other permitted government official. Also, in Massachusetts only, plain folk can get a one-day, one-wedding permit to officiate.

Instead, a couple can have a priest, rabbi, or other cleric as specified in law solemnize. Ministers and their equivalents were afterthought to the law here and not originally allowed to officiate.

The main point is that the religious aspect is veneer to the process. What makes the marriage legal is having a wedding license solemnized by a person the commonwealth says makes it real.

Some couples have a civil ceremony only. Others have both civil and church weddings. Still others have weddings in the different churches of each of the couple's faiths.

Indeed, the law here does not specify any wording for vows. In our tradition of religious freedom, you can layer as little or as much or as many blessings and promises as you like. None of that changes the nature of the event or contract.

The blessing by the cleric of their choice, indeed, by the God of their choice, is unnecessary and irrelevant to Massachusetts. It may comfort many couples to believe that their marriage is religious right and righteous.

All of that said, we should not roil the waters here by pretending that Massachusetts sanctions marriages as religious events. They are and should remain what they have been for nearly 400 years here, civil contracts.

In Massachusetts, it is when the clerk of the town that issued the marriage license files the solemnized and signed original, the couple is married in the eyes of the law. If having your license in the same file drawer as that of a gay couple threatens your marriage, perhaps it was too fragile from the beginning.

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