Separating Religious and Secular Marriage?

Timothy Kincaid

June 20th, 2008

One doesn’t expect that Baptists in Texas would be particularly balanced in their discussion of same-sex marriage. But this article in the Baptist Standard, the Texas Baptist news journal, was surprisingly informative.

If featured a the viewpoints of Barry Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Maggie Gallagher, an orthodox Catholic and the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.

Gallagher argues that the government should recognize only such marriages are are determined by religions:

“A real alternative would be for government to recognize and enforce religiously distinctive marriage contracts so long as they serve the government’s interest—say, permanent ones for Catholics,” she continued. “But what people who talk about ‘separating marriage and state’ really propose to do is simply to refuse to recognize religious marriage contracts at all. This is not neutrality; it is a powerful intervention by the government into the lives of religious people.”

Oddly, I could be persuaded to support this idea. If the government were to allow churches to define marriage and then recognized and enforced those religiously distinctive marriage contracts, gay people could marry in every state of the union and in any nearly every city that had a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, a Quaker meeting, or a United Church of Christ congregation.

Of course, Gallagher really means that the government should recognize and enforce the contracts of her denomination and not those who disagree with her.

Lynn believes that the government should be out of the marriage granting business and instead should offer civil unions to all and let the churches provide marriages to whom they wish.

“Everybody recognizes that you don’t have to have a religious marriage. State legislatures write out the rules of marriage, the rights and responsibilities of this civil institution,” he said.

“If people have to sign documents or register before an official, it in no way impugns the integrity of the religious promises that are made during a sectarian or religious ceremony

Kudos to the Baptist Standard for providing a clear presentation of two differing views on this subject.


June 20th, 2008

Of course, one could just as easily turn around and say that the government will issue marriage licenses to all, but let the religious groups craft a new, additional and exclusive status just for themselves.

Call it “holy matrimony,” “covenant wedding,” “sacremental union” or “zoop-de-do.” Whatever you like, And they can have it all to themselves. But marriage stays a government institution subject to constitutional standards of equal protection and due process.

Think Gallagher would go for that?

Me neither.


June 20th, 2008

Civil unions for all has been a libertarian argument for a long time. The problem is, civil marriage is embedded in hundreds and hundreds of laws, tax codes, civil documents and institutions like insurance…there really is little chance of the hetero/Christian community at large letting go of this concept and endorsing the expensive legal headache of changing absolutely everything, versus simply granting marriage equality. (Unless those activist judges at the SCOTUS made it so!) Just like Christian hate crime protection; which, if they won’t let go of it, has to be applied equally to other at-risk minority groups. That and full civil marriage equality are the only practical non-armchair solutions to equality right now.


June 20th, 2008

Way to stand up for atheists, Kincaid =/

Oh, and to hell with “civil unions”. The Romans gave us marriage, not churches.


June 21st, 2008

In your listing of the churches that would perform gay marriages you ommitted a major church for our community…the MCC (Metropolitan Community Churches), which are GLBT churches. I am a member of the church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, one of the largest MCC churches in the world. Our gay pastor already performs legal unions in our church regularly since Broward County, where the church is located, has a domestic partnership civil recognized union law.


June 21st, 2008

Separating civil and religious marriage has worked extremely well in Germany for years. This is how it works: First, a couple registers a civil marriage with their city government, in a simple ceremony reminiscent of marrying at a courthouse in the US. Any time after that, they have the option of marrying at a house of worship of their choice, or not doing so. The religious institution isn’t force to validate the marriage– BUT, you do need a civil marriage license to marry at the religious institution. Whether or not a couple also has a religious marriage has no impact on their rights as a married couple in the eyes of the State.

I should point out that Germany doesn’t have same-sex marriage yet, though they’ve had civil unions for several years and are moving in that direction. They don’t really have separation of church and state either– Protestant, Catholic, and (in some areas) Muslim religious instruction take place in public schools, albeit at the discretion of the children’s parents, and religious schools are subsidized by the State.

I think that an arrangement similar to the German one could work in the US, and potentially make it easier for people to accept civil same-sex marriage.


June 21st, 2008

France, as I understand it, has a system similar to Germany’s, and, just like every other Western country, it is the civil ceremony/license that is binding.

I’m unalterably opposed to handing the term “marriage” over to churches. I agree with the first comment here: let the churches come up with their own name for whatever sort of couplings they want to recognize. “Marriage” belongs to all of us.


June 21st, 2008

Gallagher says: “A real alternative would be for government to recognize and enforce religiously distinctive marriage contracts so long as they serve the government’s interest . . . ”

She’s not arguing, I imagine, for governments to recognize MCC same-gendered marriages or fundamentalist mormon polygamy because (as the right wingers have been arguing all along) she would probably not see those as “serving the government’s interest.” Same old arguments apply.

Priya Lynn

June 21st, 2008

Timothy said “Gallagher argues that the government should recognize only such marriages are are determined by religions…Oddly, I could be persuaded to support this idea.”.

A nonsense idea, as an earlier commenter said, what about the atheists. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. You can’t force everyone into a church marriage, marriage doesn’t belong to the religious, atheists must have rights as well.

Paul Ginandes

June 21st, 2008

Ms. Gallagher is wrong, as usual. The government isn’t in the business of regulating or recognizing religious marriage. It’s in the business of regulating it’s own granting of benefits and responsibilities. The fact that religious organizations also consecrate marriages is irrelevant to marriage law. It’s perfectly legal to have a marriage that has absolutely no religious affiliation whatsoever. Ms. Gallagher’s argument is the usual red herring offered by religious objectors to gay marriage. They are always trying to muddy the waters, confusing religious and civil marriage, which are two separate things entirely. This woman is the one who neglected to tell the public that at the same time she was advocating for a federal anti-gay marriage amendment, as a so-called expert on marriage, she was all the while taking a huge fee from the Bush administration to advance their agenda of placating their fundamentalist xtian base.


June 21st, 2008

I’m not sure I’d call it a huge fee – she was paid $21,500.

Timothy Kincaid

June 22nd, 2008

Lucrece and Priya Lynn,

Way to stand up for atheists, Kincaid =/

You can’t force everyone into a church marriage, marriage doesn’t belong to the religious, atheists must have rights as well.

Good point.

In essence this is the status in Kern Co. CA. The County Clerk cancelled all civil ceremonies offered by the county and did not deputize others to perform marriages. The marrying couple has to find an officiant elsewhere and, unless they personally know a judge, this pretty much means they have to find some form of religious practitioner to conduct the ceremony.

I did bring up the objection that now athiests are forced to have religious ceremonies.

However, if this were universally applied throughout the nation I suspect a work-around would arise. A Society of Religious Doubters or something like that would be created to allow for non-faith based marriages. Pragmatically, this would result in both athiest marriages and in same-sex marriages, a movement in the right diretion.

But, of course, Gallagher doesn’t really believe in this. She just wants her religion to own marriage.

And, of course, this isn’t really my ideal situation.


I’m of the opinion that the amount of the fee is not as important as the fact that she did not disclose that she was being paid by the administration to champion a political position.


You are absolutely right. I did not mention MCC or any of the other gay and lesbian churches or synagogues. As you point out, they stand ready to offer marriage the minute that their states will allow them.

I should also have mentioned Reform Judaism and the Universal Life Church which offers on-line ordination to anyone. Getting someone to offer a religious service (or a non-religious ceremony) is not at all the problem. Getting the state to stop providing preference to some churches’ definitions of marriage is the real difficulty.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be interesting to have a pro-gay church sue the state for non-recognition of their sacraments while recognizing those of anti-gay churches.

Steve - Geneva, IL

June 22nd, 2008

I’m all for clearly separating civil marriage from religious marriage. In fact if the Church really considers marriage a sacrament, I’m surprised they are not all over this. How would they feel about the government regulating and issuing permits for things like communion and baptism? If you think about it, its no different. This is a perfect example of what happens when the line between church and state is muddied. By tolerating the government’s regulation of what is a religious institution, the church is losing hold of it. They are fools for pushing more and more to blur the separation between church and state in a democratic society because once they cede control of something to the state, they allow it to be subject to the courts, the majority, etc.

If civil unions were strictly a government program and marriage was strictly religious, then the benefits we now associate with marriage could be granted to gay families (including their children) as well as straight families. And at the same time, churches could define marriage as they see fit.

I don’t see this happening. The church will never go for it. Why? This is more than an issue of them defining marriage for themselves. Its that they can’t deal with the church down the street defining marriage differently than them and moreover, they will fight to prevent anything good happening to gay families. They still stand firmly against protecting gay people from being fired from their jobs simply because of who they are, let alone giving them all the legal benefits of marriage.


June 22nd, 2008

My United Church of Christ, at our last congregation-wide annual meeting UNANYMOUSLY passed a policy that we would no longer perform any aspect of civil marriage at, or through our church. This policy restricts our pastor and other ordained UCC ministers in our congregation from performing any of the civil aspects of marriage on our property or anywhere else. It also requires that any marriage performed on our property by guest ministers/officiants understand and fully abide by this policy before being granted approval to use our facilities.

We passed this policy initially to take a stand against the discrimination that our state (Florida) and the nation imposes on gay and lesbian couples but we decided to continue the policy even after gays and lesbians win the right to civil marriage PRECISELY because it would still be an issue of the Separation of Church and State. Our Congregation, and our denomination, support this priniciple very strongly. We feel that having our pastor act as an agent of the State will NEVER be acceptable no matter how fair and equal marriage laws may become in the future.

A Stitch in Haste

June 23rd, 2008

“Comment Left Elsewhere” of the Day…

(Why aren’t you reading this at the new website?)

Professional bigot Maggie Gallagher continues to weave her web of anti-gay …


June 23rd, 2008

Government should do with marriage what they do with parenting. “Father” and “mother” aren’t legal titles; there is only “legal guardian.” The individuals decide who is a mother and who’s a father. Similarly, there should only be “union” and let the people decide if they’re married or not. If my community says I’m married, I am. If not, I’m not. Everyone’s happy because no one is forced or denied recognition of marriage.

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