Monday, April 15, 2013

The Big One: Marriage (Separation of Church and State, Part 5)

OK, this is a big one.  Gay couples are fighting for the legal right to be married.  Those opposed often do so with the argument that God created marriage to be one man and one woman.

Mmm.  I'm not going to get into a great big legal debate.  Nor am I going to quote the Bible.  I'll tell you what I know.

I was married in the Catholic Church.  In a single ceremony I was both legally and sacramentally married, but those are actually two different things.  For my marriage to "count" from the Catholic point of view, it needed to fulfill several conditions, among them that I was being married in an actual church building.  I could be married in a synagogue if I were marrying a Jew (note: I have no idea what Jewish marriage stipulations are), but I could not, say, be married on a beach, not even if the beach was really gorgeous.  If my intended were Jewish, he could have been previously married and then divorced, so long as his previous wife hadn't been Catholic, but if I were marrying a Catholic, it had to have been his first marriage, unless his previous marriage had been annulled.

Now, as a Catholic, I'm free to marry a thrice-divorced agnostic at a Vegas chapel, if I so chose.  However, the Church will not recognize said marriage.  In the eyes of the law, I'll be completely, fully married; in the eyes of God, as understood by Catholic theology, I will be single.  And probably living in sin.

Similarly, as a Catholic I'm absolutely free to divorce.  I'm then no longer legally married.  I can't be responsible for anything my jerk of an ex-husband does.  However, until I seek and receive an annulment, I'm still sacramentally married.  I can't marry again within the church.  Within the church, that would be bigamy.  Outside the church, it would simply be a second marriage, fully legal, no strings attached.

Annulments take awhile.  I know more than one couple that married legally, after a divorce but before the annulment came through, and then married again in the Church (and in the church) afterwards.

Whatever your opinions of these rules, they're the ones I play by.  But you can see, I think, that there are two systems at work here: a legal one and a religious one.  In fact, marriage in Europe began as a strictly civil institution.  It wasn't until the Middle Ages--some 1500 years after the birth and death of Christ--that it came to be seen as a Christian sacrament.  What it was or is in the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other of the worlds' non-Christian religions, I have no idea.  I believe that the idea of marriage--the more-or-less permanent pairing between two adult humans--has existed in every human society.

When slavery was legal in the United States, it was illegal for enslaved men and women to marry.  This was not because slave owners didn't want their slaves to form permanent families:  in fact, as one particularly chilling letter from Thomas Jefferson shows, it was to the owners' advantage if they did so.  Jefferson wrote to one of his overseers reminding him that a young enslaved woman's chief value lay in her having children: that the "increase in capital" was worth more than any physical labor she could do. 

Enslaved people couldn't marry because marriage conferred property rights.  At the time, marriage gave men complete jurisdiction over their wives: the wives, and all they possessed, were the legal property of the husbands.  If you allowed an enslaved man to marry, you granted him legal rights over his wife--rights that would have trumped the rights of the enslaved woman's owner.   Obviously, that couldn't be allowed.  (As a total aside, one thing that's really interested me in this whole God-doesn't-like-homosexuality argument is how it's resurrected something I'd never known existed, which is that the Bible was once quoted as strong proof that God approved of slavery.)

So now we're in the midst of debate over whether homosexual couples should be allowed to marry.  This is strictly a legal debate.  Some religions already allow homosexuals to marry within their church; others never will.  That is not the argument at stake.  Nobody is fighting over what Jesus wants here, because Jesus is not part of a legal marriage.  If He was, atheists couldn't marry.  Jews couldn't marry.  Janists couldn't marry.

A religious ceremony without a legal one carries the same legal weight as two slaves "jumping the broom:" none.  A legal ceremony is a binding contract.  Within our society it conveys rights to property, inheritance, child custody, and taxation, among other things.  That's why it matters:  it's why people bother to get a marriage license even when they're marrying in a church.

I think any two consenting adults should be allowed to marry.  I think God loves everybody.  I think my husband, M. Bart Bradley, to whom I've been married for nearly 24 years, is one of the greatest guys on the planet, and that's not just because he made me chocolate chip cookies from scratch last night.