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To anyone who has ever said, “Marriage is just a piece of paper that doesn’t really matter,” you were clearly very, very wrong. The Supreme Court decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, and the legal wrangling and controversy leading to those decisions, demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that piece of paper called a marriage license is incredibly important.
Though so much has already been written and spoken in the aftermath of the decisions, allow me to make a few further observations.
The first is a question – Who gives a marriage legal standing, and with that standing the many benefits that are granted?The answer is, the state, and only the state. While a church or other religious institution can solemnize and bless a marriage, it cannot grant it legal standing.
As a minister, when I perform a wedding ceremony I sign a marriage license issued by the state in which the wedding takes place, and I return that license to the county of its issuance. The state then records the license and makes it valid, which in turn gives the marriage legal standing.
While church weddings are beautiful and meaningful events, without the sanctioning of the state, the marriage would not be given legal standing. Granting legal standing means that the purposes of a church and that of a state are not the same. Churches make decisions as to whom they will marry, depending upon their own beliefs and practices, and place the wedding within a religious and theological context.
A religious marriage is based upon ideas and beliefs particular to the religious tradition within which the marriage takes place. But the state has a very different approach. The state must relate to many religious, and nonreligious, people. As the state deals with people of all kinds of religious creeds – or no creeds – it must not favor or impose a sectarian view of marriage.
The state is not to be interested in promoting a religious or nonreligious position related to marriage, but to guarantee that all people are treated with equality and fairness. It is simply a logical outcome of our nation’s commitment to equality and fairness that these principles would eventually be applied to the way our society practices marriage.
The second observation regards the redefinition of marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage often use the argument that marriage has always been defined as a relationship between one man and one woman. That argument has one major problem – it’s simply not true.
Even from a religious point of view, marriage has not always been defined as one man and one woman. The Old Testament, for instance, has numerous references to polygamy, a form of marriage that was not questioned for many centuries. Even beyond polygamy it was common for men to have concubines, and though it created some difficulties – most notably in the case of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar – it is not condemned.
There was the practice, also in Biblical times, of Leverite marriage. This form of marriage obligated a man, when his older brother died, to take his widow to be his wife. While it might seem odd to us today, this type of marriage provided a guarantee of care for a woman who would otherwise have been left with no resources or property to provide her support.
A final observation relates to the incredibly rapid change in public opinion regarding same-sex marriage. It is almost inconceivable now to think that California approved Proposition 8. Though it was passed less than 5 years ago, it would certainly never pass today.
In regards to most emotional and controversial issues, society generally takes a rather slow-moving path to change. In the case of same-sex marriage, that change is taking place at a rate unprecedented for such a contentious issue.
Perhaps part of the reason is that some opponents of same-sex marriage were almost apocalyptic in their predictions of what would happen if same-sex marriage were legalized. Calling it a threat to marriage and families, many opponents seemed to imply it would bring about the downfall of society.
Obviously, that’s not happened. The sun came up the day after the Supreme Court handed down their rulings. Life continued on without interruption, and same-sex marriage has not brought about the demise of heterosexual marriage (heterosexuals have done a pretty good job of that on their own).
The controversy over the definition of marriage is far from over, but it is clear that the momentum now favors those who support same-sex marriage, and the momentum will only continue to increase.
Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.