Unholy Alliance: Marriage Laws Should Separate Church And State

Spring seems to finally be making an appearance here in Washington, D.C.   Besides the flowers, warmer temperatures and upbeat moods, one other thing spring brings is the start of the wedding season.

I spent four days in Cleveland last week celebrating the wedding of a close friend. She had a Hindu ceremony with all the bells and whistles — from the groom arriving on a horse, to henna on her hands, to guests wearing colorful saris.

After two hours of watching the religious rituals that go along with a Hindu wedding ceremony, the priest finally announced that they were "husband and wife."

But what most of the guests probably didn't know was that my friend and her groom had already been married — two months ago — by a civil official in Washington, D.C.

The religious ceremony last Saturday was for their personal fulfillment in meeting their own faith's requirements. But the priest's blessing certainly wasn't necessary in order for the state to provide them with all the benefits of being married.

So why then, when it comes to whether the state will recognize same-sex marriage, does the number-one argument from anti-gay forces have to do with religion?

One source of the confusion is the melding of civil and religious authorities in many states' marriage laws.

Jonathan Lindsey, a retired faculty member at Baylor University, wrote an opinion piece for the Associated Baptist Press that urges our country to remove what he calls "the final vestiges of theocracy in the United States."

"From the earliest days of the settlement of this country by Europeans," he said, "the theocratic practice of clergy functioning as civil officials has been practiced notably in the performance of marriage ceremonies."

Calling this relationship between religion and government an "unholy alliance," Lindsey, a Baptist, said he believes the practice of a pastor, priest or rabbi signing a marriage license as an agent of the state is wrong. He said it serves as a perfect example of how Americans unconstitutionally mix civil and religious law when it comes to marriage.

"[I]t's time to change," he said. "Where states specifically require clergy to register, that should no longer be required. In states where clergy have been accorded de facto authority, that practice should be discontinued. Marriage would then be clearly understood as a relationship defined and governed by civil laws."

That's what AU has been saying all along. Thankfully, we are starting to see that change.

The Iowa Supreme Court said last week that religious denominations have a constitutional right to set their own rules about marriage but that civil law should reflect equal protection for all citizens and not be anchored in religious dogma. The Constitution demands that church and state remain separate, and that wholesome concept extends to marriage just the same as it does to any other legal right.

Of course, it's going to take time for many Americans to understand that position. Yesterday, I answered a call from a "concerned citizen." He had read Americans United's statement on the Iowa Supreme Court ruling in which Barry Lynn said the justices had "reaffirmed religious liberty." This man demanded to know how.

Before I could answer, he went on to tell me that the Bible does not recognize gay marriage and so it is wrong for the state to do so, too.

With that assertion, he had proven our point.