This was the second post I wrote on The Blue Room, related to Prop 8 in California. It relates a bit to what’s going on down in North Carolina.
Nothing like tackling a controversial issue on the second day of a new blog!
I’m not going to say much about Judge Walker’s decision declaring California’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional. But I am thinking about a few things today.
I remember seven years ago this summer, going to the Fairfax County Courthouse to get authorized to perform weddings in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In accordance with Virginia law, I had to fill out a form, get a letter from my presbytery saying I was a minister in good standing, pay $30, and take an oath. I remember walking out of the courthouse afterwards, calling Robert and laughing: “Hey! I’ve got the ‘power vested in me’ now!”
Something about that whole transaction felt very, very strange to me at the time. It seemed quite odd that I, a minister called by God and ordained to serve a local congregation, was now in effect performing a service on behalf of the state… that a couple whose wedding I officiated would not be legally married until I signed the license and sent it back to the county.
I remember when Robert and I went to get our marriage license (sixteen years ago!), the clerk asked us a long list of questions that we had to answer with “I do” and the like. As bureaucratic processes go, it was unexpectedly moving. Almost… liturgical? We left, and one of us said to the other, Did we just get married? Because it kinda feels like we did. Hey, if only we’d kissed afterwards, we could have saved everyone a lot of time and money…
This was in Texas, where I’ve also performed weddings, but unlike Virginia, there were no legal hoops to jump through beforehand. I’ve often wondered why Texas doesn’t vet its clergy like Virginia does. Could it be that Texas’s requirements and processes for getting a marriage license are more stringent, making the credentials of the officiant less relevant? I haven’t gotten a marriage license in Virginia so I have no idea. I hope one of my smart readers has some info about this.
The point is this, however: seven years ago, when I got ordained, I had not given much thought to the nuances of how gay marriage could or would be enacted from a policy perspective. But it seems clear to me now, as many others have said, that we need to separate the religious service of marriage from its civil aspects. I believe it is the only way forward, and it also gets clergy out of this agent-of-the-state weirdness. Even some of the opponents to gay marriage acknowledge that the legal rights of partnership should not be denied to same-sex couples.
I’m thinking about a couple whose wedding I recently officiated. I woke up the morning of their wedding rehearsal with a start, realizing that I hadn’t said anything to them in our premarital counseling about getting a marriage license. It isn’t my job to remind them, but usually it comes up, and I tell them to bring their paperwork to the service, if not the rehearsal, so I can sign it.
At the rehearsal I mention this to the groom and he says, “Oh, we’re actually not planning to get a marriage license. We really don’t care what our status is with the government. What matters to us is that our union be blessed by God.”
Now, inside I’m thinking, This is a really, really bad idea. This couple already has children together, and let’s face it, there are tangible benefits to being “officially” married… which of course is a big part of why gay persons are fighting for this civil right. And I told some friends afterward about this and several suggested that they probably already were married and either didn’t want their family to know, or wanted the imprimatur of the church on their union. I also felt a little put out: then what am I doing here? Play-acting? Fake marrying?
Later I realized: they cared more about the liturgical and sacramental aspects of marriage than the legal ones. Isn’t that something? What I was doing there was not play-acting, but what I as a clergyperson am supposed to do: to ask God’s blessing on the union between two people, to pray for their welfare, and to support them as they pledge their lives to one another.
And whatever legal/contractual arrangement they have with one another, as important and beneficial as that is, is a separate issue entirely.
What do you think?