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The Two Marriages

25/02/2011

It’s been a HuffPo kind of Friday.

Next on my list of articles of interest: pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow published a blog entry yesterday in which he makes an argument that I’ve been shouting out for years: “marriage” is not a government construct. Marriage, especially as it is defended by those who argue most strongly for its exclusivity, is a spiritual commitment between two people who agree to share trials and triumphs, good times and bad and all of the “ho-hum” days in between. The civil (read: government) institution of marriage is merely a personal contract that affords both parties certain obligations and entitlements.

If you ask anybody who knows me well, they have likely heard me talk about this before. Likewise, Brian will tell you that I already consider us to be married — we made an agreement to one another and to a higher power to stay together and be loving to one another, to keep all of those vows that we will make one day in front of our family and friends. (Wait, it still counts if we conceptualize that “higher power” differently, right?) The legal recognition of our union is important for all of the legal rights it affords us, but the “legal” institution of marriage is simply a…wait for it…civil union.

Reyes-Chow brings up another fantastic point that seems to be forgotten in the clamor to define marriage: “defining marriage is a no-win situation.” Those same people who will rush up with Bibles in hand to defend the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman will conveniently forget the stories of men who took multiple wives, even the patriarch Jacob who lest we forget was tricked into marrying one wife and yet took another. However, I don’t see it written on the books in any state that men (or women) are able to engage in polygamy, so clearly biblical precedent doesn’t direct our every law.

This brings up perhaps the most important point that Reyes-Chow makes, and the center for his argument and mine: separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the Constitution establishes a government separated from the religious beliefs and practices of its leaders and citizenry. Therefore, any attempt by legislators, clergy or conservative pundits to distinguish those eligible for government benefits from those who are not based on an institution that is not civic but spiritual in nature is a blatant violation of that separation.

The good pastor points out that he is not acting as an agent of the state when he officiates a wedding, a statement supported by his recollection of his own wedding 20 years ago — though he and his wife considered themselves married when they said “I do,” the state did not consider them bound in a civil union (incorrectly labeled marriage, to blur the lines) until the signed and witnessed marriage license was filed with the court. If “spiritual” marriage and “civil” marriage were the same institution, surely the two marriages would begin at the same time. On the other side of the coin, if marriage was a monolithic institution then ending a marriage would be a single step process as well. However, ask any Catholic who has gone through divorce just how simple it is. The court will acknowledge and grant a dissolution of the civil contract with the appropriate documentation and testimony, but the Catholic Church requires the couple to apply for a separate annulment of the union in order to avoid excommunication.

Finally, we address the ever-looming question of same-sex civil unions. In states where “marriage” equality laws have been passed, members of the clergy may decline to perform a spiritual marriage ceremony but same-sex couples are still allowed to file the necessary paperwork and enter into a civil union with one another — in some states, the contract is classified as a “marriage” contract as it would be with opposite-sex couples. In other states without “marriage” equality laws, same-sex couples may not be able to enter into a civil union with one another, which denies them the tangible rights accorded to other “legally” married individuals, but they may very well find a member of the clergy who could still join them in a “spiritual” marriage that they and their friends and family would recognize regardless of any opposition from the outside.

Nobody is questioning the right of different religious establishments to deny the provision of “spiritual” marriage services to any couple because of their beliefs — this not only applies to same-sex couples but also to couples who do not plan to have children, divorced individuals, or those who do not follow the doctrine of the establishment in question (i.e. Catholic priests who may decline to perform a marriage sacrament if one partner is not Catholic).

However, if we are truly adhering to the Constitution that conservatives love so dearly to read but not to follow, then that right ends at the doors of government — which should be open to everyone who is of the age of majority and who is of sound mind. The government should not attempt to define or defend marriage; what it should defend, rather, are the rights of all of its citizens to enter into civil unions with one another and to enjoy the same rights and obligations of that contract no matter who stands beside them. Call all civil unions just that — don’t discriminate, and strengthen the line between church and state.

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