Speaking of North Carolina… A Repost

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.

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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?

8 thoughts on “Speaking of North Carolina… A Repost

  1. Rachel Heslin

    I am a big fan of the government getting out of “marriage.” I think that it makes sense to allow the constellation of legal benefits that are currently associated with legal “marriage”/domestic partnership/civil union to be incorporated as perhaps a checklist of boilerplate options (eg. living will, medical insurance, estate allocation, etc.) that each set of partners would agree on as pertaining to their own circumstances and desires, and have the rest of it be none of the business of the state.

    My $0.02.

    Reply
  2. Martha

    I’ll be doing my first “no license” wedding this weekend. In this case there are economic issues that make a legal marriage undesirable. The groom cannot add the bride to his health insurance, and she will lose hers if the marriage is civil. With a baby on the way, no one can afford that outcome. But they want to make this commitment in front of God and their families and friends. They have my full support.

    Reply
  3. Megan Dosher

    Like you, Maryann, I’ve been thinking about this whole business of doing work on behalf of the state, and how odd it is. I, too, am getting married in Texas, and my fiancé is a Lutheran pastor. We have decided to get legally married by a civic authority and keep the liturgical part separate because we agree that ordained ministers of word and sacrament should be getting out of civil affairs, at least as far as performing them. We want to put our money where our mouth is, so we will actually be married before our church wedding a few days later (shh, don’t tell our congregations – though we will tell anyone who asks).
    One of the things that spurred my thinking about this topic was the former language of our Book of Orders’ Ordination Standards (former) Amendment 6B. As I was considering all the issues, and wandering down rabbit trails, I wondered, like that couple you married, why you would even need to be legally married by the state in order to be considered married. And I have never heard discussions around chastity and fidelity that talked about that, nor in regards to our official definition of marriage still in the BoO. What if you were married in the church, but not legally by the state? Would you have been considered in violation of 6B? If so, are we not putting the government’s authority ahead of the Church’s?

    By the way, Texas is an interesting state regarding who is authorized to marry people. The law is actually that anyone the couple sees as having the authority to marry them is legally authorized, so though I’m not ordained yet, if a couple sees me as having that authority, I can sign a marriage license. In Colorado, couples actually marry themselves. You don’t need another authority to sign the marriage license, even if they perform the ceremony.

    Reply
  4. John Porter

    I feel strongly about the sancity of marriage, and believe it can only be performed by clergy (registered by the state or not). I also firmly believe that right of gay couples to enjoy the same protections and privileges as married couples should be protected. Just PLEASE don’t call it gay marriage!

    Reply
    1. Robert Braxton

      The partners marry – this is not something that any outsider does to the partners in marriage or does on their behalf. A marriage ceremony celebrates what already is the condition or situation chosen freely by the partners themselves (my opinion).

      Reply

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