Monday, June 19, 2006

Separation of Church and State: Marriage

About two years ago while I was serving as the assistant pastor at Broadway UCC in Manhattan, my senior pastor, Bonnie Rosborough, offered to our Board of Trustees her conviction that she would not longer act as an agent of the state when performing marriage ceremonies. Her proposal was motivated by the issue of gay marriage and she found that if she was to follow her conviction that all people should be entitled to this basic right, regardless of their sexual orientation, then she could no longer in good conscience officiate a marriage ceremony. She said that she would continue to bless heterosexual marriage ceremonies as an agent for God and the church but that she would not sign a marriage license. If a couple wanted that, there would need to be present an agent of the state who would sign and testify to the ceremony performed.

It took me a few months to grasp the magnamity of what she was saying.

But there is another angle to this debate. To honor and value the idea of separation of church and state which is the main idea of the U.S. Constitution, one has to wonder in what ways is the church currently involved in issues of the State. And there is no greater activity than in the course of marriage. The minister, in many ways, validates to the State a marriage. In this way, a recognized clergyperson may indeed cross the boundary meant to be protected by the Constitution.

And, given the conversations by many religious conservatives regarding the idea that allowing gay marriage would undermine their heterosexual marriages and, their argument that the institution of marriage must be protected, one only has to understand that to them, the institution of marriage is a religious institution. And if it is religious, then how can the State best be served when it is supposed to be separated from religion in the first place? It is a complicated matter where the answer isn't as 'cut in stone' as one might suspect.

So then, back to Bonnie's recommendation: Would desolving the relationship and responsibility of the clergy to act as an agent of the state speak to the issue of separating Church from the State? A think thank in London, Ekklesia, seems to think so when it is recommending a conversation in which we think about the ramifications and justifications of removing clergy-officiation of marriage ceremonies altogether. You can read part of the whole story here.

What do you think?

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