Marriage - Both a Civil and a Religious Institution
Perhaps it’s hubris on my part to write a blog about the definition of marriage with the Supreme Court only weeks or perhaps even days away from ruling on the matter (Obergefell v. Hodges), but I have to admit being flummoxed by the state of near hysteria that has been generated in this country over the definition of the word.
It seems to me that, in our culture and under our system of government, marriage has two definitions. It is (a) a civil contract and (b) a religious institution.
This distinction is based on the premise of the separation of church and state as a fundamental tenet underlying the first amendment of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution.
Religions that practice in the U.S. are free to define marriage within the context of their own principles and philosophy. It is not unusual for some religions to deny, or require a special dispensation for, couples seeking to marry if they do not share the same religion. The government (AKA the state) may not ordain what constitutes a valid religious marriage.
To the best of my knowledge, every state in the union accepts as valid the marriages performed by members of religious groups (except for polygamy which was outlawed by the U.S. Congress in the late 19thcentury).
The other side of that coin is that the state governments have the authority to establish their own criteria for civil marriage. In the past, many states required blood tests to help maintain public health and safety, but over time, nearly every state has abolished that requirement.
Today more than a handful of states (some of them in the heart of Bible Belt America) allow for common law marriage, but most do not. But that does not in any way require a religious organization to sanction common law marriage (and few do).
Most religions condemn adultery; many also condemn common law marriage. But there hardly seems to be a wave of hysteria over the fact that such “sinners” might be customers of religious-minded business owners. The issue has only arisen over the discussion of same sex marriage. It seems a bit hypocritical to me.
If the self-righteous are truly honest in their claim that their religious freedom is threatened by the requirement that they might be “forced” to do business with sinners, they should be willing to post in their place of business a sign that might read something like this:
Please note: We value our customers and want to give you the best service. However, if you have ever engaged in any of the following acts that we consider to be sin, please be advised that we do not wish to have you as a customer.
Following would be a list of everything they deemed to be a sin.
That would be honest and forthright and truly nondiscriminatory, allowing them to bear the commercial impact of choosing to deal only with those they considered to be sinless. It would also put them out of business in about a day.
Nearly forty years ago, a gay friend of mine with a serious heart problem told me of his concern that should he die before his partner, the inheritance taxes would force the sale of their modest weekend cottage in the Hudson River valley. In my mid-twenties at the time, I was haunted by the gross unfairness facing so many Americans. Some fifteen years later, my friend’s heart gave out as he sipped a martini during a Sunday lunchtime in his beloved retreat. His partner never had to face the loss of his home, as he succumbed to cancer three days later. They were spared the heartache they feared.
Much progress has been made since then, which is good. Let’s hope that the impending decision by the Supreme Court will put an end to the chimera that freedom of religion can deny citizens their civil rights.