Marriage, Church & State

Sermon by the Rev. Truman Parker, preached 7/5/2015

1 Corinthians 13.

two-gold-band-wedding-ringsSoon after I arrived in Mountain Home I had the dubious distinction of being the first pastor in forty years to officiate a bigamist wedding in Elmore County.  In my defense I would add, not only was I ignorant of this fact going into the ceremony, so was the couple. The groom thought he was divorced from his first wife. He wasn’t.

So, how did I end up conducting a bigamist wedding? The short answer is, the couple had a valid marriage license. The marriage had the state’s blessing, and government has final say over who is and is not allowed to marry. Who was I to argue with the great state of Idaho? Presumably, they had done their homework.  They hadn’t.

The institution of marriage is a place where church and state intersect in ways bewildering, complex, and dauntingly complicated.

The truth of the matter is, when they conduct wedding ceremonies, clergy are caught up in an uncomfortable conflict of interest as representatives of a religious tradition and unpaid agents of the state. We probably should intone, “We now pronounce you husband and wife,” because when we say it, we speak for two institutions.

Marriage licenses are strictly a governmental affair, but clergy usually conduct weddings and proclaim couples to be officially and legally married. The state doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of a marriage until an authorized member of the clergy signs a legal affidavit affirming a valid exchange of vows.

This ungainly system grows out of the fact that church and state define marriage very differently.

The state defines marriage as a contract between two people that creates a partnership granting specific rights and privileges to each spouse. These include property rights; access to joint financial resources; parental and sexual rights; and power of attorney for making medical decisions.

As is true of all contracts, the marriage contract also has termination clauses: incompatibility; mental and physical abuse; infidelity; and abandonment.

The state gets involved in marriage because it claims the compelling interest of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and victimization.

In religious weddings, brides and grooms form a covenantal relationship and promise each other they will do whatever is necessary to keep their union alive and growing.

The nature of this covenant is complicated by the fact that religious traditions have very different visions of the marital relationship. Stripped of nuance and subtlety, the Southern Baptist Church defines marriage as a two-gender, bi-polar relationship where one partner is dominant, the other submissive. In the UCC we say marriage is a partnership of equals working to forge a healthy and nurturing family life.  The Roman Catholic Church seems to say the end and purpose of matrimony is procreation.

Whereas the state’s legal contract is narrow and specific, marriage covenants are open ended: in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, whatever the future may hold.

By tradition, weddings formally acknowledge a deep, intimate, and abiding relationship between two people. But religious weddings have no standing in law. The couple may be married in the eyes of God, but without the state’s permission, they cannot be legally married. The legal safeguards can only be obtained through signing the contract.

Clergy have unlimited discretion in the way they handle wedding requests. In their professional capacity, clergy operate outside of the law and answer only to their congregations or their ecclesial authority.

A fairly high proportion of the weddings I perform have come to me because the couple couldn’t find anyone else willing to officiate for them. Many Evangelical and conservative pastors refuse to marry people outside their congregations. Roman Catholic dioceses do not allow priests to perform weddings for divorced people, and in Chicago particularly, I conducted a number of weddings that were second marriages for one or both partners.

While judges, mayors, and clerks may perform a civil ceremony and sign the license sealing the marriage contract, most couples, especially young couples, want something more formal than a perfunctory courthouse procedure.

Especially after the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, there has been a great deal of fear mongering about infringement of religious freedom when ministers are forced to perform gay marriages. I say fear mongering because, legally, this scenario can never happen.

A couple of years ago the Supreme Court decided a major case affirming a legal doctrine known as the clergy exclusion.[1] In a very conservative court, the vote was unanimous: nine to zero. The exclusion says the state cannot interfere with the way clergy carry out professional responsibilities, neither can it come between clergy and the institutional organizations they represent.

Because clergy operate outside of the law, and in obedience to church doctrine, they have the right to refuse any and all wedding requests.

For the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely a gay wedding will take place in a Southern Baptist or a Missouri Lutheran Synod congregation. On the other hand, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and as of last week, the American Episcopal Church, have all said yes to gay marriage and granted their clergy permission to perform gay weddings.

So, without question, clergy cannot be coerced into officiating at weddings that impinge on their religious beliefs. But the clergy exclusion only applies to religious activities. The courts generally define “religious activity” as worship or sacrament, and ultimately, church weddings are worship services.

In the secular world, the clergy are subject to the same laws as everyone else. Even for clergy, there are limits to what can be claimed as religious faith. For example, the courts will almost certainly reject the first amendment claims of the newly formed Church of Marijuana in Indiana.

Samuel Johnson famously defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. I would add, in the spirit of the new revelation of the Church of Marijuana, religion is always the first dodge of the con artist. Religious faith can be a force for good in society, but can also be used as an excuse for evading the law or denying people their own freedom of belief.

Equally important, sincerity of faith is no guarantee of morality.

In the Civil Rights era the white supremacists argued, as they continue to argue today, it is an article of faith with them that the races should not be allowed to mix socially or professionally. They have been given the holy vocation of ensuring the purity of the white race. Therefore, providing services to people who offend their moral sensibility is an infringement of their freedom of belief and conscience.

The courts ruled, correctly, that “separate but equal” is never equal and always biased.  If you run a business that is open to the public it is just that: open to anyone walking in off the street.

In the secular world today we hear a variant of the white supremacist argument:  there are certain people my conscience prohibits me from providing services to or employing.

But how well does that argument play out if the offending group is, say, Mormon, or Jewish, or Southern Baptist? Discrimination against selected races, ethnicities, or religions, is illegal and morally repugnant.

We should not allow tacit Jim Crow laws to apply to our gay citizens, either. A wedding cake is not a religious sacrament. Business owners don’t have to approve of the way their products are used, but that doesn’t mean they have a legal right to discriminate against a select group of individuals.

A number of clergy have been performing gay weddings for as long as I have been ordained. Fifteen years ago one of my Methodist friends in Chicago made national news when he publically split with his denomination’s doctrine and conducted a number of gay weddings. He paid a price for it, too, because the Methodists require their ministers to strictly adhere to their Book of Discipline.

Religious weddings have always been available for gay couples, if they knew where to go to find them. But gay couples wanted more than just religious acceptance and acknowledgement. They also wanted the legal protections the law provides, especially the authority of making medical decisions.

In a medical emergency you should have family visitation rights to be with someone you have lived with on an intimate basis for forty years. People in a committed relationship should have the authority to make medical decisions for a partner who is incapacitated.  After all, who knows our medical wishes better than our partners?

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. Our country was founded on the ideal of freedom: freedom to think differently; freedom to pursue our own interests and inclinations; freedom to be left alone. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues knew they were not forming a perfect union; when it came time to draw up a constitution the framers anticipated that changes and mid-course corrections were inevitable. That’s why they included an amendment process. But they hoped in time the American experiment would work and freedom would become the center of our thought and culture.

That time has not yet arrived, but over the centuries there has been gradual progress.  The Supreme Court decision on gay marriage brings us one step closer to the ideal of liberty and justice for all.


[1] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C.,1332 S.Ct. 694 (2012)

Posted in 2015 CPC Blog, Marriage
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