Don’t Tread on Me!

A funny thing happened one day at the Cedar County Court House. My sister-in-law who had a title and abstract company randomly discovered that the officiant had failed to sign her marriage license back in 1961. Were she and my brother legally married? Is she really my sister-in-law?

By the time of her discovery she and my brother had four children and were pillars of the community. My sister-in-law founded and was the sole owner of the title company. My brother had served numerous terms on the city council as well as mayor of our hometown. Both were strong supporters of the local schools and highly visible in their church.

The parish secretary had dutifully recorded their marriage in church records. There was no doubt they were sacramentaly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But the priest whom the state had authorized to serve as its representative, much like a justice of the peace, had failed to sign the legal document prescribed for civil marriage. Were they legally married?

This family story highlights something I also know from my years as a pastor. Most couples and wedding guests are totally unaware of the dual function a priest, minister or rabbi serves in contracting marriage. Most people have no idea that after the ceremony — usually in the vesting room, back of church or sometimes at the reception — the “wedding coordinator” has to chase down the officiant and honor attendants to sign the marriage license as prescribed by the state law.  The parish secretary then dutifully mails the license to state officials.

This is a pretty important clarification as many states consider “religious freedom” exemptions for everyone from photographers and cake bakers to county courthouse officials. It takes on even greater significance as we await a Supreme Court decision which two-thirds of Americans presume will open civil marriage to same-sex couples.

Let’s be clear, no one is saying that churches, synagogues or mosques should be required by civil law to accept, host, or bless gay unions, or any other marriage they may find objectionable. In fact, quite the opposite!  What goes on among religious people, and in religious spaces, is constitutionally as well as theologically sacred.

Jay Michaelson of the Religious News Service makes this point in a commentary [link] that should be required reading for all Americans. He bolsters his point with his personal experience growing up in a synagogue which refused to perform interfaith weddings. Does that violate the civil rights of the couple wishing to be married? Well, it does affect them, but the couple’s right to get married wherever they want is trumped by the synagogue members’ rights to freely exercise their religion.

But the courthouse is not a religious space, and the magistrate is not acting in a religious capacity. She is doing her job, which she took an oath to do. Photographers and cake-bakers are another matter — there are usually many more to choose from.  Michaelson gives more examples.

Suppose two divorced people marry one another. Some Catholics may believe that to be against God’s law. But a Catholic magistrate is not a Catholic priest. He’s not performing the sacrament of marriage. He’s acting under secular, state law.

Or suppose a black man wants to marry a white woman — it was illegal in Nebraska when my brother and sister-in-law got married for a white person to marry either an Asian or an African-American! The US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1967. Was that ruling incorrect? Should marriage clerks with sincere moral objections be able to refuse to perform their civic function?

My guess is we will be seeing many more “religious freedom” laws considered regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the right of every American to enjoy the freedoms and privileges — as well as responsibilities — of civil marriage with the person they love.

As a Catholic I am very well aware — nor am I asking that my church to violate — its teaching about the Sacrament of Matrimony. I cherish that tradition and affirm the church’s teaching. I have had the honor to be the minister of that sacrament and signed many state-issued marriage licenses.

I have also had the experience of teaching American Government to juniors and seniors in high school. Just as most Americans attending a church wedding conflate the sacred and secular roles of the officiant, most Americans are functionally illiterate of the constitutionally enshrined principle of Separation of Church and State.

As an American I want this nation to live up to the promise and protections of our Constitution. As a Catholic I am aware of her teachings and continue to find my spiritual home among its members. As a gay man I claim and expect my government to keep its role separate from my religion and ensure my Constitutional right to Equal Protection of the Law.

Sorry, there isn’t a courthouse clerk in America who should have the right to deny me a marriage license because they have a religious objection. If they have a problem with that perhaps they should take up photography or cake decorating — at least then my taxes would not be subsidizing their religious practice.

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