Friday, May 30, 2008

Some clergy question role in marriage as agent of the state -

Some clergy question role in marriage as agent of the state -

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Staff Writer
Article Launched: 05/29/2008 06:34:03 PM PDT

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

The debate over gay marriage has led to a re-examination of the role of clergy in performing weddings as a legal arm of the state.

Some clergy are asking why in the matter of marriage only they have to sign a legal document. Some see the question in terms of the gay marriage debate and say they won't sign marriage certificates until gay couples can legally marry.

Religion's role is to bless a marriage, the state's role is to ensure observance of legal rights, they say. Clergy should bow out of their role as agents of the state entirely, said a religious leader who has stopped signing marriage certificates.

"The term 'sanctity of marriage' implies marriage is an inherently religious ceremony and it's not," said Jay Johnson, senior director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. "The president of the United States has no business talking about marriage as a religious act."

The significance of the marriage certificate compels attention in light of this month's California Supreme Court decision striking down the state's prohibition of same-sex marriage. The ruling takes effect June 16. Opponents have gathered more than 1.1 million signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage for the California ballot in November.

Some spiritual leaders may have stopped signing marriage certificates as an act of protest, but "that's a temporary thing," Johnson said. "Others just won't do it anymore regardless. There are just lots and lots of clergy who are uncomfortable with being agents of the state, because these are very different sorts of things."

Like Johnson, several clergymen and women in Minnesota's Twin Cities have opted not to sign marriage certificates , according to the Bilerico Project, a gay rights organization and blog. "We're in the blessings business, not the wedding business," says the Rev. Anita C. Hill of St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church in the Bilerico blog.

"I think the need to untangle civil marriage and the rights associated with it from religious blessing is an important step to moving towards full marriage equality in our country," said South Florida editor Waymon Hudson, president of Fight OUT Loud, a national organization that advocates protection against hate crime and discrimination.

Hudson and his partner plan to travel to San Francisco this summer to marry.

"Our country's idea of marriage is completely too intertwined with religion, which is why we have fallen behind other countries in the world when it comes to marriage equality," he said. "Spain, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, allows same sex marriage because they are able to separate the religious aspect from the civil contract, something our society is unwilling or unable to do."

Much of the world disagrees with what Hudson calls marriage equality, said a spokesman for the California Family Council.

"For many religious individuals who hold marriage to be between a man and a woman, that is a religious belief and character," said legislative coordinator Everett Rice.

"As a historic or traditional understanding it has always been understood in law that marriage is specifically between a man and a woman. Some folks may have issues with religion, but the discussion is not just relegated to religious perspective, and that's not just in the U.S. and Canada, it's around the globe."

"Marriage between a man and a woman is a Biblical institution," said Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the legal arm behind Proposition 22. "Someone who says it is a wholly legal institution must be someone who doesn't read the Bible. Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles."

Johnson countered that the idea that marriage unites a couple who love each other and wish to make a life together is about 300 years old. The church has been solemnizing marriages since the 12th century, and the nation's Puritan forbears did not practice a religious marriage ceremony, he said.

"There's a real complex history that gets flattened out in the context of the public policy debate," he said.

Some religious leaders say since they are not lawyers, judges, civil servants or elected officials, they should not be asked to perform a civic role.

In some instances, religion routinely intrudes in civic life — newly elected officials taking the oath of office on a Bible, for instance.

But in no other task a cleric performs is there a legal aspect, said the Rev. Scott Landis of Mission Hills United Church of Christ. "Even though there are legal aspects to burial, for instance, I don't sign anything that says I oversaw the dispensation of the body," he said. "I don't sign a death certificate.

"I still believe marriage is a function of the state that the church blesses," Landis said. "I don't know why we have to sign (marriage certificates) at all other than I officiated over their ceremony. But I don't care to be involved in a legal function."

Regardless the faith, each tradition has a different take on the meaning of marriage, Johnson said. "Those religious meanings don't necessarily match up with the state's civil contract of marriage," he said.

"The whole purpose of getting a civil contract is to make it clear what the conditions are for breaking the contract. In most religious traditions there are no conditions in which the covenant can be dissolved."

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or

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