Getting the Government Out of Your Wedding

Some years ago, I officiated at a wedding. It was a Quaker wedding, and since there are no Quaker ministers, the happy couple needed a kind of master of ceremonies to keep the program moving along. They handled most everything themselves; my job was mostly to say things like, "Now we're going to do the vows" and such. I wasn't breaking any laws, but a guy in the band did ask me afterward where my congregation was located, which, as a Jewish atheist, I found amusing. I've also been to a wedding or two that was officiated by a friend of the couple's who got ordained in the Universal Life Church (only $28.99 for the Ordination Package), which is what you do in many states if you want to perform a wedding but you aren't a member of the clergy in one of the religions your state decides is legitimate.

The question people inevitably raise on these occasions is, why the heck do we have this system in 2014? If you're going to have to go to city hall and fill out a bunch of forms to be officially married in the eyes of the state anyway, why isn't that enough? How does the government get off telling you which clergy are allowed to perform your wedding?

Well, maybe there's some hope that we can get to a system that has a little more sanity in it. Amanda Marcotte alerts us to a federal appeals court's decision to strike down an Indiana law that forbade secular humanists from having someone who shares their beliefs preside over their weddings. And here's what the state was arguing:

During the litigation Indiana officials defended their statute by saying that humanists were free to have their marriages solemnized by anyone authorized under the state law.

The list includes a member of the clergy, a judge, mayor, city clerk, or court clerk. Some religions that have no formal clergy are granted an accommodation that allows non-clergy to perform the wedding. They include Quakers, members of the Baha'i faith, and Muslims.

In other words, the state has said that if you're a member of certain faiths, like Quakerism, we acknowledge your beliefs about the nature of the universe as legitimate, and therefore you can have an exception to the rules we've established for other people (only properly ordained ministers can perform weddings). But to other faiths, and to those who don't believe in any religion, you don't get the same privilege. We won't forbid you from having a wedding, but you're going to have to get one of a relatively small number of approved public officials to preside.

That this is clear religious favoritism of precisely the kind we should have left behind long ago ought to be inarguable, but it obviously isn't. And lurking in the background is the issue of same-sex marriage.

One of the ridiculous fears that the crazier kind of conservative sometimes raises in the discussion about marriage equality is that if it becomes the law, then the government will force churches to marry same-sex couples against the church's will. Of course that's absurd — the fact that it's legal for a Catholic to marry a Jew doesn't mean that the local priest has to perform the ceremony if his church doesn't consider the marriage sacred. But much as they might recoil from any change that might be seen as doing a favor for secular people, religious conservatives should be happy about anything that lessens the government's ability to regulate religious rituals.  

What we really ought to do is eliminate the regulation of weddings entirely. Since marriage is a legal status that changes your relationship to the state, there is and ought to be certain things you have to do to make that change happen. If the state wants to make it more than just the filling out of a form—perhaps with a brief civil ceremony the couple has to perform—that's fine. And then once they've done that, people should be able to have any kind of wedding they want. The wedding, in other words, should be a ritual with no content prescribed by the state, no "By the power vested in me by the state of Indiana" at all. If Baptists decide that henceforth all their weddings must feature the couple singing a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" as a sobering reminder of the dangers of growing apart in order to be considered a true marriage in the eyes of the church, then that's up to them. If a group of people decides that they'll only be married by trained Dungeon Masters, then they should have at it. If you want to have your dog officiate at your wedding, that ought to be your choice. The state doesn't tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it shouldn't tell you how to get married.

In other words, religions should determine what they consider sacred, and the state should determine what it considers legal, and the two need not have anything to do with each other. This shouldn't be that hard to agree on.

Comments

Funny thing.... Look at the Puritans of the Bay Colony. While they objected to Common Law marriages (more or less as we understand the idea today), they didn't initially see marriage as a big religious issue. Marriages were performed by various magistrates.... Now baptism, there's an issue for them....

I would add, let's not confuse Quakers (US) of today with quakers then. In some ways, quakers were visionaries of our world. In others, they were more puritan, more controlling, than anything Puritans could have imagined, nor did they Countenance.

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