Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Marriage Down the Rabbi(t) Hole

Ministers are unnecessary. That is, all clerics are superfluous to marriages, as far as legal reality.

The deafening hoo-ha from anti-gay and anti-marriage-equality folk truly clouds the obvious. Some obscure intentionally, also known as lying. Others simply do not understand the issues or even the process.

Who Can Sign the Paper?

Let us repeat ourselves — marriage in the United States is a civil contract.

You can make it into more, in your mind, in the eyes of your family, in your prayers. That does not change the legal nature of marriage.

In that context, wailing about same-sex marriage maiming, contorting or harming religious perceptions and rituals is asinine. Homosexual couples want and deserve the civil-contract protections and benefits. Keep your religion to yourself and in your house of worship, if you please.

The offensive and well doomed efforts to create a theocratic national marriage law is perhaps the most extreme example of this emotion. We have had numerous small rebellions, and in no small part the Civil War, related to states' rights versus overweening federal power. No one should be surprised that neither Congressional house wants to try to federalize states' authority.

Aligning with the Dark Side

Recently, clerics have insinuated themselves into this conflict, many as ignorantly as politicians and lobbyists and just plain old anti-gay types. Their intentions in many cases are honorable, but they align themselves with the worst elements of discrimination by equating civil contracts with religious ceremonies.

Inspired by state laws and amendments, as well as the federal DoMA, some clerics call for a separation of church and state, saying that government should not regulate or legislate marriage at all. Some say they won't perform marriages as long as there are anti-same-sex-marriage laws on their states' books.

A bitter irony here is that they are actually calling for an entirely new, theocratic set of institutions. That might be understandable coming from the First Estate. However, they should consider what they are asking and back off.

Legislating Religion

From colonial times, marriage has been a civil contract and remains so. We don't need to establish a separation of church and state on marriage, merely maintain what we have.

The anti-gay/anti-SSM folk are calling for legislating religious ritual and beliefs into civil law. We should all scream to prevent that. The corollary of the state and federal government legislating theology and religious practices should be equally unamerican.

Most of us are at fault on this too. We generally refer to a church wedding as the marriage. We confuse the civil and religious here, as they can happen in the same room at the same ceremony.

Many clerics understandably suffer from the same emotional hobble as many physicians. They hear constantly of their power and come to believe it. They inflate their importance, which must be tempting if your parishioners and others tell you regularly that you are connected to their god.

The problem here comes with conflating the popular misunderstanding of religious ritual with civil contracts and related law.

Proud and temporarily impoverished parents certainly would hesitate to pay many thousands for the big day if it were seen as a simple legal act, like say, a car purchase. However, joined together in the sight of God and so forth has a justifiable ring to it, as well as a valid social purpose.

Let us recall that despite what a priest insisted to me, our laws followed the long-standing traditions of English and European ones. We approve and record marriages as legal protections and property considerations. That is precisely why the government issues marriage licenses and records completed ones. That is precisely why the government approves separations, divorces, child custody, and property divisions.

These are not enforceable by any church or cleric. This is contract law, as cold as that may seem.

Solemnizers by the Score

Note that in Massachusetts, clerics were not allowed to solemnize marriages during colonial times. They might speak a few words, but marriage was a matter of government. Our constitution reflects this, with a long list of government agents, from the governor through judges and justices of the peace who can authenticate and solemnize a fulfilled marriage contract, a.k.a. license.

Then by statute, other solemnizers include ministers, priests, rabbis and such clerics. Of course, we have that wonderful colonial and constitutional vestige of the one-day solemnization certification. Any adult of good character can get a permit to solemnize a marriage — one day, one couple, one locality, one per year.

I have done two, one for a straight couple and one for two men (coincidentally through Mitt Romney's office). Technically, once I petitioned the governor, the secretary of state's office took over, but it was amusing that Romney was the start.

Ministers and other clerics came to officiate at weddings for practical considerations that have nothing to do with their religious links or credentials. As Uncle over at Scratches has noted, clerics got the right to sign marriage licenses for simple, common-sense reasons. They were ubiquitous and they were literate. In Massachusetts, and in all states, there is no requirement for religious marriage and no legal provision for it. Again, marriage is a civil contract, legislated, enabled and controlled by the states.

Various states authorize sundry officiators to marriages. The man who performed my marriage in South Carolina, Arthur Horn, had a nice résumé, but only one qualification for the solemnization. He was chairman of the Beaufort County Council, president of a bank, and on and on. However, it was his role as notary public that gave him the power to sign the marriage license.

God and Caesar

When you hear a rabbi or other cleric hold forth about religion and marriages, you can nod and grunt or perhaps correct the palaver. They are not at all necessary for a legal marriage. Moreover, the vast majority of marriages take place in totally civil settings — a town clerk's office, a justice of the peace's place or the like. Whatever blessings or service the solemnizer speaks can make for a wonderful memory, but no more or less legal than the simple signature following, "By the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I pronounce you married."

There are also practical considerations for clerics here. Like cops on off-duty detail at road construction or funerals, performing marriages is a key perk and necessary salary augmentation for most clerics. Sure, congregations could pay them more and require them to bless members' wedding for free, but that is not the way the system works.

More than one minister got defensive and accused me of poaching when they heard I had performed weddings. Many consider the combo wedding/license signing as a right as well as a rite.

That doesn't have to change. Anyway, far too many of us are too emotionally involved in this. However, the key issue is avoiding translating our feelings and our religious beliefs into laws for all. It's never been that way in this country and there's no compelling reason to start now.

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1 comment:

Ryan said...

The funny thing is I can imagine a reversal of fortune. Say, gay people were getting "married" across the country in churches everywhere - in much, much, much higher numbers than they already were - I'm sure straight people would then be claiming "Marriage is a civil right, you aren't entitled to the civil rights of marriage."

I bet bottom dollar that, before Vermont and Massachusetts, when there were all those protest marriages (and they made news), that there were those kinds of essays, quotes, etc. coming out of Focus on the Family types.