Thursday, February 10, 2011

A TEACHABLE MOMENT: Holy Matrimony vs. Civil Marriage

Posted with permisssion from The Rev. Canon Susan Russell's blog: An Inch At A Time

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


A TEACHABLE MOMENT: Holy Matrimony vs. Civil Marriage:


OR: Why the Bishop of Rhode Island Gets It So Wrong She Gets It Right



Rhode Island finds itself on the front-lines of the marriage equality battle as the House Judiciary Committee prepares for hearings on a same-sex marriage bill tomorrow (February 9th.) Last week, Bishop Geralyn Wolf, the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, weighed in with a statement to the online publication The Rhode Island Catholic.

It was a statement I frankly had to read a few times before I realized with some amazement that the good bishop had gotten it so stunningly wrong that she actually got it right! Let's take a look:

"As the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, I firmly support the traditional definition of marriage as the union between one male and one female. I believe that Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."

OK. This is the part she gets right. Which is NOT to say I agree with her about the "traditional definition of marriage." It IS to say that I also believe that "Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."

Not only shouldn't the legislature or courts be messing with sacred religious rites ... THEY CAN'T. See also: The First Amendment -- which guarantees freedom of religion and means we have the freedom within our various and sundry religious traditions to interpret how we define the sacred religious rite we call Holy Matrimony.

Roman Catholic priests have the freedom to refuse to marry previously divorced couples and Orthodox Rabbis have the freedom to refuse to preside at inter-faith weddings. And Bishop Wolf is as entitled to her belief that Holy Matrimony is only between "one male and one female" as I am to mine that the values that a couple bring to a marriage transcend the gender of the couple and that God blesses same and opposite sex marriages equally. How we sort that out together within our religious tradition is up to us to work out -- and in the Episcopal Church we are well and truly knee deep in the process working it out.

But (and it's a BIG "BUT" ...) ... none of that has ANYTHING to do with what the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow.

What the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow is whether the equal protection of CIVIL MARRIAGE -- the contract between two people who pledge to love, honor and cherish each other til death do they part -- should be equally extended to both same and opposite sex couples.

Another way to put is: Holy Matrimony = Apple. Civil Marriage = Orange.

So Bishop Wolf gets it right: the state should not be messing with Holy Matrimony. What she gets wrong is that the church shouldn't be messing with Equal Protection.

And here's where she gets it REALLY wrong ... in the second part of her statement:

Legislators could honor the civil rights of all individuals by eliminating the term “marriage” and substituting the term “civil unions.” Religious organizations could then make their own decisions as regards to the recognition or non-recognition of these “unions.”

On first glance, that seems like a kind of radically egalitarian solution that could have some appeal. Eliminate civil marriage altogether -- give everybody civil unions. Except (and it's a BIG "EXCEPT") ... civil unions do not guarantee the more than 1,138 federal rights, protections and responsibilities automatically granted to married heterosexual couples.

So Bishop Wolf -- in a misguided attempt to protect the already-protected-by-the-First Amendment-right to define Holy Matrimony as "the union between one male and one female" -- would take away from all Rhode Island families the protections given by federal marriage rights. Like the right to make decisions in a medical emergency. Like Social security benefits, income and estate tax benefits and disability benefits. Like inheritance rights, parenting rights and ... well, it's a very long list.

Throwing out all those rights, protections and responsibilities in order to "protect" marriage from gay and lesbian couples who both want and deserve equal protection for the life they are building together isn't protecting marriage. It's throwing out the baby out with the bathwater. The people of Rhode Island deserve better. And the Bishop of Rhode Island should know better.

4 comments:

frharry said...

Of course, marriage, like all social institutions, is ultimately the product of social construction whatever else one might say about it. That includes its civil and legal aspects as well as its religious aspects. As a socially constructed institution, it has a beginning point in history as well as points where its practices have changed. All traditions are innovations at some point in their histories. And if an understanding can be constructed in one manner, it can be constructed in other manners.

Moreover, all socially constructed institutions attempt to claim for themselves a status that obscures their socially constructed nature. That includes the use of supernatural arguments(G-d has ordained this understanding), natural arguments(it's in accordance with the laws of nature) and the traditional (we've always done it this way). In every case, this amounts to little more than an attempt to legitimate a socially constructed institution which, without such legitimation, is revealed as essentially arbitrary. At heart all social institutions remain little more than the product of a given society at a given point in their history deciding to do things a given way.

Of course, a civil marriage subsequently blessed by the church (if desired by the couple) makes plenty of sense. It ends the current discrimination practiced by the state and affords the religious institution a choice on how to respond to legal marriages as an institution. Of course, the good bishop no doubt recognizes the quandary that would pose to the church: how do we speak of loving our neighbors as ourselves in the same breath we actively discriminate against them?

Bulldog#71 said...

For some time, this aspect of the devicive argument has been wiggling around my theological brain. I'm a well trained Catholic, 59 and very traditional in my sexuality and morality. The division of civil law and sacremental theology and (in my case) cannon law need to be considered. I had to provide quick civil protections to my 2nd wife (my first died from cancer) when her company treated her harshly and removed medical benefits. I consulted with my church, accepted their guidance concerning a civil marriage and protecting my right to receive the Holy Sacrement of Matrimony later... and accepted the responsibility. Happily, I visited the court house with my new bride, spent $50 dollars and she had medical benefits back. A few months later, we were united in the Holy Sacrement of Matrimony. I have no fear of Catholicism dulling or deluting my sacrement. I have no confidence in my country living by such a moral code. It is beyond the nation, pure and simple. Yet, if I have no real interest in how society awards protections, what should I care? I have my sacrement, the nation will earn what it sows, and the people who feel discriminated against will receive civil protections from a civil marriage. They get their civil, I get my soul. More should be written investigating this possible avenue of compromize for the peace of it.

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Ronomundo said...

What is missing from these comments and this discussion is the distinction between State Matrimony and Holy Matrimony.

Holy Matrimony is distinct from State Matrimony in that the 1st amendment prohibits the state from infringing with Holy Matrimony.

Therefore, no state may require that a Holy Matrimony process be sanctioned with a State Matrimonial License. Marriage is a contract and as such is protected by the constitution, outside of the sanctions of any state.

The Contract Clause appears in the United States Constitution, Article I, section 10, clause 1. It states:

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

The Contract Clause prohibits states from enacting any law that retroactively impairs contract rights.

Thus, a church may issue its own marriage license under its own terms. This meanings it is up to the church to define marriage. If a church follows scripture, and some do not, then they can on their own accord marry whomever they so choose, such person(s) having attained the age of majority or such person(s) having had the disability of minority status nullified.

Each church is free to design their own marriage covenants and bill(s) of divorce. I have written many such documents for use by several different church groups, most of whom are free churches or unregistered churches, both of which are exempt from the burdens imposed upon 26 U.S. Code § 501(c)3, charitable religious entities.

On the other hand, the church must let the state, if it becomes an entity which is not under God, define their own marriage. The state has no authority to impose a same sex marriage standard upon unregistered Churches or those formed under 26 U.S. Code § 508(c)1a, which is not a charitable religious organization by a religious organization under God rather than under the state.

"Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts." This means that the state should not be messing with Holy Matrimony, simply because it does not have the constitutional authority.

Not only shouldn't the legislature or courts be messing with sacred religious rites, THEY CAN'T. The First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, means we have the freedom within our various and sundry religious traditions to interpret how we define the sacred religious rite we call Holy Matrimony. Depending upon whether or not we follow the scriptures, we may restrict marriage to the joining of a man and a woman, or expand to gay marriage, polygamous marriage or even bestiality should some church decide that kind of perversion is what they what to practice, completely ignoring the King James Bible, which is the "Preserved Word of God."

Remember, the scriptures warned us about "another Jesus" and "another gospel." See - http://www.letusreason.org/Wf2.htm

Roman Catholic priests have the freedom to refuse to marry previously divorced couples and Orthodox Rabbis have the freedom to refuse to preside at inter-faith weddings.

Another way to consider the distinctions between Holy Matrimony and Civil Marriage is: Holy Matrimony = Apple. Civil Marriage = Orange. Thus to protect the already-protected-by-the-First Amendment-right to define Holy Matrimony as "the union between one male and one female," we must stand on the constitution of these United States of America.