Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Marriage Gust in Augusta

It is to laugh a common-sense laugh. At the behest of a minister, a Maine legislator has filed a bill to remove ministers and other clergy from those who can sign wedding certificates in that state. The theocrats who love pretending that marriages are just religious ceremonies will be a dither. They conveniently forget that these are civil contracts and clerics are add-on solemnizers.

It's bad enough when the anti-gay/anti-marriage-equality ranters fantasize aloud about the way marriage always has been. They have even fallen into a chant implying it is actually the ministers or other clerics who make marriage in Massachusetts or Maine or elsewhere legal. Apparently many ministers, driving while looking no farther than their hood ornaments, buy into that too.

That only goes beyond coffee hour conversation when those folks want theocratic legislation -- that is, if they would like to legislate their religious practices and beliefs for all adults.

Let's say it firmly and slowly enough in short enough words for all to understand.
  • The government permits and legalizes the marriage.
  • The state license permits various appointed or elected officials and most clergy to sign the license as agent of the state for that marriage.
  • In Massachusetts alone, plain folk can solemnize one marriage per year.
  • The majority of us who marry get our marriage solemnized by someone other than a cleric.
  • The religious ceremony can be the highlight of your life if you feel that way, but it is in no way required to make a marriage legal.
  • Likewise, if you divorce, you do so through the state, not your cleric.
  • Constitutions in the states make it plain that marriage is a civil contract.
The bible thumpers seem to overlook much in their holy book. Our patriarchs apparently to a one (if they could afford it, and nearly all could) were polygamous. Many with one wife had numerous mistresses. For most of history, people just lived together and formal marriage was relatively rare. It was only in the last century that weddings were truly the norm throughout our society.

With the political issues to fight, we can understand, if not condone, the lying hyperbole. However, when it comes to legislation that affects all adults, let's keep it clean.

Up in Maine, the legislative geste and jest is the bill 779. It would return marriage to its original form around there, supposedly leaving folk to continue to arrange their parades down the nave on their own. By inference, it would make the religiously inclined take a separate trip to a notary or justice of the peace for the legal side.

An Act To Remove Clergy as Signatories on Marriage Licenses strikes or an ordained or licensed minister of the gospel from the list of official solemnizers -- those who can legally sign a marriage license to make the union legal. Given our U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, this makes legal sense, but the emotions surrounding such plainspoken separation of government and religion should make for some interesting debate.

I'm betting the committee studying it finds a way to kill it.

By the bye, my own marriage is coming up soon on 31 years. It is legal under the authority of a notary.

Rep. Boyd Marley introduced the bill at the request of North Deering Congregational Church (Portland) Rev. Mark Rustin. He figures clerics need a clear distance from the legal stuff, and they should concentrate on parishioners and souls and such.

As the article puts it:
Rustin said the role of clergy as marital contract agents puts them in a difficult position when the very people they married need help getting through a divorce. “We tied the knot that they’re desperately trying to untie,” he said, and that, too, often stops people from coming to get help from the clergy who married them. He also said there are times when older couples want the clergy’s blessing to live together, but don’t want to lose Social Security or other benefits that come with the marriage contract.

“My main emphasis is to separate us, the church, the clergy, from the legal entanglements that people get themselves wrapped up with in marriage,” Rustin said.
He dismissed that this might have anything to do with marriage equality or future related legislative debates and actions concerning that.

Rustin and Marley are neighbors. The latter said the minster "doesn’t want to be 'an agent of the government,' but rather a clergyman in charge of a 'religious ceremony in the eyes of God.'"

For his own historical perspective, Rustin noted that it was a quirk of the Colonial times that even led ministers to get the right to solemnize marriages in Maine. Town governments needed to find people who could read and write to make the civil contracts legal. "Clergy were the only ones literate in large measure and the extra income came in handy." However, he added, "Being agents of the state isn’t an appropriate place for us to be. I can’t serve two masters at once."

The bill is in the judiciary committee. If it emerges, there will be a public hearing.

Tags: , , , , ,


Uncle said...

A bit of North Country cattiness here, but when last I looked, there were more literate Maine clergy than literate Maine legislators. Question is, can they bait a hook?

But it would be nice to see the clergy doing the day job, so to speak.

massmarrier said...

It's peculiar at first and seems political to non-clergy. However, a couple of weeks ago before this hooha, a minister at a big UU church nearby told me at length much the same.

Her hubby is a JP and of course, she has performed weddings for some time as a minister. They disagree on much, but concur that parishioners and state would be better off if the robed ones did religious work and left the marriage contracts to professionals.

She rather enjoys rituals, including blessing couples. She doesn't like being an agent of the state (her words too) either.

Anonymous said...

I am a minister in Maine and am appalled by this foolishness. Most clergy earn very little income and to make the assumption that clergy should not have the coice to provide marriage services is simply un-christian. There are no laws compelling clergy to perform wedding services nor should there be, but to remove the choice of clergy to provide them establishes a sweeping assumption about all clergy when the clergy themselves cannot even agree upon basic interpretations of the same good book or accept each others credentials.

This seems clearly to be the work of a renagade minister and a legislator wanting to make some press. This example of clergy and state working together in an effort to dimish the income of the clergy clearly defines why clergy should continue to provide marriage services as an alternative to secular channels.

massmarrier said...

Well, anonymous cleric, I certainly see your angle on this. Of course, this may also be a somewhat higher example of underpaid professionals. The true cliché of super-cheap salaries for waiters and self-righteously claiming they make it up on tips is the more standard version of this.

You might look at an earlier post when I reported on an elderly minister, a long-term friend, taking me to task for "poaching" by performing those two weddings here. He was a bit mollified to hear that ordinary folk could only do one a year, but weddings had always been a cash cow for him.

I was surprised to hear that minister recently go on about not wanting to be the contract officiator. I'd bet that just as many people would have a religious ceremony if clerics were not permitted to sign the marriage certificate. They are doing it for their beliefs, their culture and their families, not to get a signature.

To your point though, most churches need to pay their minister more. You should not have to rely on weddings or other moonlighting to get by.