Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Should Clergy Perform (LEGAL) Marriages?

I am ordained clergy and one of my favorite parts of being ordained is the unique role that I can play in officiating a wedding. I've already done 2 this year, and there's more to come. There is something so holy to me to when I walk a couple through the vows that they chose/wrote for each other as they look lovingly in each others eyes.

However, as of late there has been an interesting point being pointed out by many in the church. The latest is found on Tony Jones' blog entitled: Doug Kmiec Is Right: Clergy Should Not Perform (Legal) Marriages.

In this Tony points out some interesting and thought-provoking observations about clergy and marriage. He says:
In no other fuction as a clergyperson did I function as an extension of the government -- not when I was baptizing, burying, counseling, or communing. Only when performing a wedding did I, with the stroke of a pen, make official a legally binding contract that, in the eyes of the state, allowed that couple to enjoy certain privileges like the ability to file joint tax returns, visit one another in the hospital, and receive joint health care benefits from one of the partner's employers.....
I do find it odious that clergypersons are called upon, in this one instance, to act as agents of the state.
He goes on to conclude:
Clergy and churches, on the other hand, should have no part in legally-binding contracts. Instead, religious professionals should bless and sanctify unions and partnerships that fit within their religious traditions as part of their sacerdotal functions.
Of course part of this is brought on by the issue of same sex marriage. Douglas Kmiec on The Colbert Report (Video Below), points out that "the state has an obligation to treat all of its citizens equally and to preserve the principle of equality." In essence, he is saying that by allowing the polemic Church to decide who can and can't be married that the State is not upholding its role of equality for all citizens. This is something of which I had not considered, but has been thought-provoking to me.

By watching the video and reading all of Tony's blog, you will see that what they are suggesting is a separation of the two roles. This allows the state to practice equality, while allowing the Church to decide according to their own convictions and traditions. That would mean that different traditions would bless and marry same sex couples, and others would not. If a couple would not be recognized/blessed by their own church/tradition, then they could seek out another tradition. Either way, they would still have equal rights as heterosexual unions, because according to the State, all couples would have to go through the state for the legal union of marriage.
I'm not sure this solves the problem, but it is an interesting concept. Let's face it, when it comes to marriage there is no separation of Ch. and St. When that occurs, others suffer. In this case, some churches suffer and many individuals and couples suffer. I agree that the Church and her clergy should not be agents of the State, but marriage has also become a tradition of sacrament.

I'm not sure what the right call is here, but it is a new (at least to me) thought that is interesting and will be given more thought! I do believe in equality, but in that equality it also means not forcing churches into performing marriages with which their beliefs do not mesh. How do we provide equality for all parties involved? I do not believe that there is true equality if one party is hurt by the "rights" of the other. I think on this issue it goes both ways.

In the meantime, I will continue to do weddings when asked because I truly do enjoy the unique perspective on that holy moment. I adore watching as everything that the couple feels for one another culminates into that one moment where they are pronounced married for the first time! I will continue to do it because I love the role that God plays in the blessing of those that want to seek the marriage commitment. But I will also continue to speak out for equality for all, even those that I don't agree with. Those that want to call me names and label me because I disagree with their theology, I will still fight for you. Why? 2 reasons: Because liberty for one means liberty for all. And 2, because I am called to love all and not be judgmental. And I will never forget that behind these "issues" are real human faces. People with feelings of love, pain, sorrow, etc... the same feelings that I feel. We must never remove the human element when discussing these issues or we chance perhaps losing our own humanity in the process.

These are some interesting thoughts, feel free to share yours.


  1. Interesting post. I agree with all you said and I am sure officiating marriages is a joy. However, I would tend to think that officiating over sham weddings wouldn't be so joyful and by that I mean people getting married for all the wrong reasons. Lets face it same-sex marriage isn't a threat to the institution of marriage but divorce and people getting married for all the wrong reasons are. I wonder how much this plays into Kmiec's views. It seems that we spit on marriage when we allow sham weddings to happen but same-sex marriage is fought over and homosexuals with a genuine love for each-other are denied the right to marry. Isn't it amazing how marriages of convenience are always granted such as Britney Spears' 24 hour marriage or even weirder the woman who married the Eiffel Tower but not for homosexuals who are committed to each-other with genuine love.

    I also wonder how literally we take the phrase: "Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together – let them speak now or forever hold their peace." from the Traditional Wedding Vow is taken. As for me I've never seen any wedding where anyone dared to take the phrase to heart and answer it---perhaps out of fear of being labeled "jealous" or a "hater" or some other insult---although, I do know of instances where perhaps the phrase should have been answered honestly and thereby preventing messy divorce or some other form of violence.

  2. Bringing my comments back to the issue of separation of church and state, I believe that those who oppose same-sex marriage don't understand the concept. It involves exactly as you said:
    This allows the state to practice equality, while allowing the Church to decide according to their own convictions and traditions. That would mean that different traditions would bless and marry same sex couples, and others would not. If a couple would not be recognized/blessed by their own church/tradition, then they could seek out another tradition. Either way, they would still have equal rights as heterosexual unions, because according to the State, all couples would have to go through the state for the legal union of marriage.

    Also, interestingly enough our Puritan fore-bearers believed in separation of marriage and church:
    The English Puritans who founded Massachusetts in 1630 formed a society as committed to religion as any in history. But for them, marriage was a civil union, a contract, not a sacred rite.
    Early Boston’s Puritans would not have sanctioned gay marriage, because they would not have had the conceptual categories to make sense of the idea. They condemned and occasionally punished homosexual behavior as a sin, a deviation from the procreative function of sexuality. But in this light, homosexual behavior was not categorically different in their eyes from other forms of sexual transgression, from premarital sex to masturbation. Sexual behavior was something a person did, an action of the moment, not a form of identity or a defining characteristic of a person’s nature. Race, by contrast, was a category that New England’s Puritans often did regard as a form of identity, a defining characteristic that separated Europeans from Africans or Native Americans. In this respect, they were no different from most people of that era. And yet Puritans like Samuel Sewall, a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and author of the first antislavery pamphlet in America, abhorred the laws barring interracial marriage. He fought to grant legal recognition to the marriages of slaves and free people of color. Sewall stands at the beginning of a proud tradition in which Massachusetts judges used the court’s power to decide cases in favor of equal rights for all. In Sewall’s view, all people "are the Sons and Daughters of the First Adam, the Brethren and Sisters of the Last Adam, and the Offspring of God; They ought to be treated with a Respect agreeable."

    Massachusetts history reminds us that what we commonly call marriage today was initially, and quite deliberately, constructed as a form of civil union. Although marriage was a fundamental aspect of these highly religious people’s lives and the foundational element of their social order, its regulation was separate from the church. The Puritan founders understood marriage as a social institution that needed adjustment according to changing circumstances, and they left the state to do this important work.

    In every region of colonial North America, devout believers fought over how to define true religion, and where to draw the line between church and state. In some of the smaller and initially more homogeneous colonies like Massachusetts and Connecticut, religious uniformity was enforced by the state. But taken collectively, no single religion in colonial America ever had the power to decide for everyone, everywhere, what was sacred. As a practical matter, the traditional practice of state-enforced religious uniformity proved to be unworkable in the new American republic. It was this de facto diversity that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined in federal law.

    Different religious communities have long maintained different standards governing who can marry, whether interfaith marriages are permissible, what the obligations of marriage entail, and when or if divorces can be granted. We should not forget that the English Reformation began in 1529 with a conflict between Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII over whether Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon could be annulled. Henry said yes, Clement said no, and in that dispute a new religious tradition, with new ways of defining the relationship between church and state, was born. The idea of legalized homosexual marriage is no doubt innovative. Some religious traditions reject it, while others support it. But the same was true of past adjustments to the legal definition of marriage, such as the recognition of interracial marriage. The traditions pioneered by Boston judges–a legacy that removed marriage from church control–have made these legal adjustments to social changes possible. A policy wherein all marriages are considered as civil unions would be consistent with America’s strongest traditions regarding civil liberties, equal rights, the separation of church and state, and the freedom of religion.
    Read full article: Here.

    It wasn't until later when theocratic Calvinism took over that marriage became entrenched in a blend of church and state language as it had always been in the Catholic/sacradotal traditions.

  3. man, thanks for posting this, ever since i read will campbell i've thought pastor's shouldn't perform legal marraiges...i think the debate on homosexual marriage would have been a perfect time for clergy to take a stand against doing the state's work of "legal marriage" i feel marriage is between God, community and couple, go get it endorsed by a judge if it needs to be a legal thing


    No prob buddy. I think that marriage is both. Perhaps it needs different labels, but I can't deny there is a legal aspect to it (as it currently stands), but a very spiritual aspect of it too. Perhaps the Church should perform "marriages", and you register your "union" with the state. Idk how that all works out politicallly, but that's for ... Read Moregreater minds than me.

    I think that the legal accountability and orginization needs to be there (otherwise divorse lawsuits would be more rediculous than they are already), but the more I think about it, combining it all together DOES take away from the spiritual concept of marriage, as well as all of the other things that are present at a wedding (family/friends/community, pubic acknowledgment of the inward decision (hmmm that sounds like how some people define another sacrament that is not a part of the State), etc...). I agree that its the time to step up and take a stand on the legal aspect. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Theo,
    Dude, that is a lot of fantastic information to soak up. I like that you bring up the idea that marriage was NOT ALWAYS a church issue. I think that many people conveniently forget that.

    as mentioned in drew's response, I think that the REALITY of marriage is that now there is 2 parts. There is the marriage-spiritual, and the marriage-institutional. To me, the latter is the one that deals with all the legal aspects of marriage. Perhaps it is time (and Drew states, "the best time") to have this discussion that perhaps the two parts are once again separated. I think that might be the best way to dissolve some of this debate, and achieve better separation of Ch. and St.

    Altho as an aside, I will say that true separation of Ch. and State in the current culture and law cannot be achieved without some even greater sacrifices. Things like ministerial tax allowances and such would be lost. And that's fine, but it would mean a radical change in thinking and action on both parties parts!

    Perhaps we should stop calling it the separation of Ch. and St., and start focusing on the PROTECTION of Ch. and St. Semantics, I know, but truly at this point that is more likely than true separation. But still, in the idea of that protection (from each other), I think that the marriage issue of being a St. agent in the Ch. still falls under that goal!

    thanks for thinking with me and sharing your thoughts!

  5. This was a comment from my facebook note and my response:

    either is between God and the two people who love each other and want to put a stamp on becoming one and sharing that love with each other and God for the rest of their lives..

    That's a good cannot be legislated. Yet, this is more than a fight of semantics. I think that many people use labels to diffuse their argument, but no matter what the label is, people strive for the equal right to love and be loved. It is a core need of humanity. So I wonder what that says about us (people) when we refuse a basic human need to our fellow brothers and sisters all created in the image of God?


  6. No problem Justin---I'm always willing to help out. I agree with you though that it's hard to have a true separation of church and state though I suppose to some degree we try. You also bring up a good point in Angela's comment---how does how we view the Imago Dei play in our views of marriage?


  7. I'm a licensed minister and have officiated a marriages, I'm also a high school history teacher who teaches the law class. I'd never thought of this as being a violation of church and state. It's just been the tradition and by such precedent since before the U.S. gained independence.In my view the marriage license, which is issued by a government official (usually a county clerk) is the person responsible for granting the marriage. A judge, captain, or clergy officiates the vows, but the vows are not the binding contract. The laws of the state regarding marriage is the binding contract as contained by the license. Clergy does perform a function, though, since if you are not truly licensed or ordained the marriage is null and void. Maybe we should be charging the state for our services?

  8. PM,
    thanks for reading and commenting. I've never thought about charging the state for our services angle. I wouldn't complain!!

    I think the biggest problem with that against say officiating the wedding but not signing the lisence, is that it keeps the issue of equality in the Church's hands rather than the States. If the Church could accomplish that goal (treating all equally) better than the gov., then I would say go for it. However, It is mostly because of churches and religion that the Gov. holds back equal rights to all individuals. So I would call the Church the weak link in that area. Like I said, the more I think about it, this would be the only way I see to FREE both parties (Ch. and St.) and allow America to progress even if the churches want to stay non-progressive. I may not agree with their stance, but this way protects their freedom to practice their own beliefs. I've been thinking a lot about this and I still see no other option at this point in history.

    just my thoughts, take them as you will. Thanks for your great thoughts!