Civil Marriage And Religious Law: How The Lesson From Cyprus Applies To Maine

It appears Cyprus is to the Middle East what Las Vegas is to the United States.

Well, sort of. Just as Sin City has become the destination for many American nuptials, Cyprus apparently has a booming wedding industry as well – but for a completely different reason.

According to today's Washington Times, "In the Middle East, civil marriage doesn't exist, and no religious authority will officiate an interfaith wedding. Lebanon and Israel recognize civil marriages so long as they are performed abroad, and the closest venue is Cyprus, 150 miles from Lebanon and 230 miles from Israel."

The article tells about many interfaith couples who have made the trip to get married on the island, which is also the reported birthplace of the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite.   Last year, 523 couples from Lebanon and 1, 533 from Israel were married on Cyprus.

In both countries, clerics decide who gets married. In Israel, rabbis control marriage and divorce, arguing that same-faith marriages are vital to preserving religious beliefs, particularly because "Jewishness" passes only through the mother.

A similar argument is made by religious leaders in Lebanon.

"For us, a person who has a civil marriage is like a person who is committing adultery," the Rev. Joseph Abdul-Sater told the newspaper. Abdul-Sater is a Maronite Catholic priest and religious judge.

"The marriage is the sacrament, while civil marriage is a contract," he continued, "and for that reason, it is considered cohabitation."

But those seeking to marry outside their faith feel discriminated against by their countries.

"Who is ruling the country?" a Lebanese groom asked. "In a way, it's the religious parties. Not separating the church from government from the beginning...this is the biggest problem."

He's definitely got that right. We're fortunate to live in a country that constitutionally mandates church-state separation. That's why people of different faiths can easily marry each other in the United States. Our country cannot deny a marriage certificate to interfaith couples – that would clearly be mixing religion with civil law.

It seems so easy to come to that conclusion with regard to interfaith marriage. That's why it confuses me that when it comes to same-sex marriage, some religious leaders believe it's their job to forbid it.

For example, in Maine, the new battleground over same-sex marriage, Roman Catholic bishops have aligned with evangelical Protestants to promote Question 1, a referendum on November's ballot that would repeal a law permitting same-sex couples to marry within the state. (At the same time, progressive Protestant and Jewish leaders have taken the opposite stance, forming a coalition to rally for same-sex marriage.)

In a country that prides itself on religious liberty and welcomes those of all belief systems, why should civil marriage law be forced to conform to the teachings of the majority faiths?

While religious denominations can make their own rules about marriage in keeping with doctrines and dogma, those rules should not translate into civil law. The Constitution forbids government to make laws respecting an establishment of religion, and that should include laws regulating marriage.

Marriage laws ought to reflect equal protection for all citizens, regardless of their beliefs about religious faith.

If that wasn't the case, Cyprus would have to make a lot more room for some angry American tourists.