On Friday of last week, I heard two sounds that were more beautiful to me than any church bells or songs by Johann Pachelbel could ever be. “Ka-ching ka-ching whir whir whir.” Ahhhhh, they were like music to my ears! I couldn’t help but grin, and I looked over to my fiancee to see if she was doing the same. She was. How could we not be? We were standing amidst a dozen small office cubicles in the main courthouse of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We had just heard the sounds of our $60 being put into a cash register, and then our receipt being printed out. And with that, we had bought our marriage license!
A few minutes before, another employee in another office cubicle had printed out the license itself. She had carefully pointed out to us the two places on the document where my fiancee and I would have to sign our names, as well as where our two witnesses (our two best friends) had to sign theirs. As a commonwealth with Quaker roots, Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the US to offer self-declarative marriage licenses. That means that no signature of a court employee or judge, and especially not of a clergyperson, is necessary! And that’s exactly how we wanted, even insisted, on having it.
If we had planned on getting married in a state that didn’t allow self-declaration (a large majority of states don’t), we would have been totally fine with our license being signed by a notary or judge. But we were both firm on not having a clergyperson make our marriage legally valid. This would have even excluded asking a friend or family member to sign up for the “fast, free, and easy” way to be ordained, i.e. with the Universal Life Church.
Was this insistence of ours the result of a bias against clergy or organized religion? Far from it: My fiancee is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I’m currently a seminary student training to be a minister in the same denomination. But we are both strong proponents of keeping separate what many Americans have unfortunately fused together: civil and religious marriage. So, in less than a month, after our union is blessed by an ordained and active minister in a chapel, we and our two best friends will be signing both our marriage license and a religious marriage certificate, the latter of which will also be signed by the minister.
I’ve discussed my marriage plans here not only because I’m excited about the big day (though that’s certainly true). But our plans are not due just to personal preference or whim. Rather, they stem from a strong conviction, both as Christians and Americans, that religious and marriage need to be disentangled, both as concepts and in their legal and practical aspects. No longer should these two types of marriage be seen as the same; no longer should ministers (of the ad hoc ULC variety or otherwise) act as agents or extensions of the government, be able to effect what is essentially a legal contract between two parties.
Looking briefly at some of the history of marriage in Europe and America can disabuse us of the notion that this conflation has always and everywhere been so. (Note: This survey of marriage history is derived from the article "Church, State and Marriage Equality" by Rob Boston. Church & State 66, No. 4 (2013).) For many centuries in Catholic Europe Christian wedding ceremonies didn’t really exist, and even when they cropped up during the Middle Ages there was no single, established way to sanctify Christian unions. When the Puritans arrived in America, they prohibited ministers from performing marriages because they conceived of marriage as originating in a legal contract, with wedding ceremonies to be held in private houses rather than houses of God. As time went on in America, marriage as primarily a civil institution continued, since clergy were in short supply in the countryside. Only after the Civil War did the government regulate marriage strictly, as well as give clergy the power to take on a function as civil as enacting a legal union between two people.
Clergy have not always functioned as agents of the state, and they still don’t in several areas of the world. As Bryan Cones points out, many countries in Europe and Latin America require couples to be married by a government or juridical officer first. If they want to, they can then follow up that legal marriage with a religious ceremony. Their marriage is then considered “convalidated.” Why can’t something like this be the official practice in America?
By conflating the two types of marriage, we as a country have done damage to both the integrity of the government and of religion. After all, how does it make sense that a clergyperson can give a couple access to all of the tax and economic benefits that go along with legal marriage? If a minister can bring about a marriage, why shouldn’t he/she be able to enact that same couple’s divorce as well? On the religion side, has acting as an agent of the government made it difficult at times for clergy to exercise their prophetic role of criticizing the government and society when necessary? Christian author Tony Jones argues that it has.
More importantly, the conflation has hurt people and prevented us from loving our neighbors. It allowed marriage to become a huge battle in the “culture war” between conservatives and liberals and in the struggle for equal rights for the LGBT community. In the furor and vitriolic discourses surrounding gay marriage, religious conservatives have often claimed that the government is overstepping its role by trying to alter the definition and sanctity of marriage. Several states known for their religious and social conservatism passed laws banning gay marriage. Conservative religious communities were afraid and outraged at the possibility that the government would force them to officiate gay weddings when the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. Human beings made in God’s image of love and relationship, who just wanted to have the same legal and social standing as heterosexual couples in America, were collateral damage in this battle.
Underlying much of the rhetoric from both the liberal forces and federal government on the one side and states rights advocates and social/religious conservatives on the other was the assumption that “marriage” was one institution. It is possible that unraveling the threads of civil and religious marriage, especially by removing clergy authority to officiate civil marriage, could have gone a long way in ameliorating that battle. If civil and religious marriage had been more separate the whole time, it would have given less strength to the religious conservative argument that the government was trying to impose changes on a godly institution. There would have been less chance for the fears surrounding Christian ministers being forced to officiate gay weddings to stir up as much passion and rancor as they did. With gay marriage now the law of the land, this crisis seems to have mostly passed. But if this American phenomenon has already contributed to such social discord and personal distress, who knows what kind of damage to people, as well as to the integrity of church and state, it could do in the future?
What can be done to untangle this enmeshing of marriage? It's difficult to know how we can bring about a separation that will be effective throughout the country. This is because many laws on marriage, particularly on who can make them valid, are decided on the state level rather than the federal. Connecticut and five other states, for example, do not recognize the validity of marriages officiated by someone who got ordained for the express purpose of performing a marriage for a friend or family member. Luckily, as one NYT article notes, “unless the issue is forced through divorce or death, the judicial system tends to grant couples the benefit of the doubt.”
Nonetheless, a few concrete things can be done on a personal basis to at least challenge our society’s conflated perceptions of marriage. So, all you engaged couples out there, I urge you to to think about letting an officer of the government sign the paperwork that will make you legally married. If you’re not religious, don’t assume you have to get married by a clergyperson. If you really want a friend or family member to officiate your wedding and sign your paperwork, encourage them to apply to be a temporary agent of the state (with efficacy limited to that particular wedding), rather than become a “minister” with the Universal Life Church. Clergy, gently encourage couples to utilize you as the blesser of their spiritual union rather than primarily a notary public for their civil one. When it comes to marriage, let’s keep clergy out of the realm of the city hall and courthouse! Let’s keep the sounds of bureaucratic printouts and of nuptial church bells where they belong: beautifully divorced!