November 22, 2008 in Opinion

Remove churches’ role in making marriage legal

By ELIZABETH SILER Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

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I could never see myself in a gay marriage, a polygamous marriage or a polyandrous marriage (with more than one husband). Yet I know people who would welcome these three types of marriage.

Two women friends would like to marry each other. They’ve been living together for longer than the 11 years my husband and I have been married, and they would like to be spouses.

Another friend, a Muslim, recently startled me with the statement that it’s too bad polygamy is illegal, since she would very much welcome her husband’s taking another wife. I was amazed to see how many non-Muslim friends agreed with her.

A third friend and I were recently discussing an article about an Indian village where women commonly marry pairs of brothers. I couldn’t imagine such a situation – but my friend, a happily married woman, said she would welcome such an arrangement.

Like many people, I sometimes wonder about my friends’ sex lives. But, as a heterosexual, monogamous woman, I just can’t go to the bedrooms of any of these marriages in even my wildest fantasies. I try – and some sort of internal electroshock always shuts down the scene.

But a respectful choice about how to live a peaceful life, made between consenting adults, should not be determined by someone else’s inability to “go there” – to imagine how such an arrangement would play out. By way of comparison, I am a vegan. The same electroshock sensation comes over me when I try to imagine eating meat – but that doesn’t give me the right to prohibit meat eating.

For whatever reason, a lot of people in this country seem unable to imagine gay marriage. And many use religion to justify their position. They mistakenly think that religions will be forced to marry gay people. However, nobody is telling any religious organization that it must change whatever position it has on gay marriage. To do so would be unconstitutional.

Another parallel: My church (Roman Catholic) prohibits remarriage after divorce except in some clearly vetted circumstances. While divorce and remarriage are both legally available options for any Roman Catholic, no one can force any agent of the church to perform the remarriage or allow the remarried persons into full communion.

Others opposed to gay marriage maintain it’s not what God ordains. God wants Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, as some religious opponent of gay marriage say.

They are welcome to this opinion, but we must remember we live in a constitutional democracy, not a theocracy. We have clear separation of church and state.

The state can – and does – permit choices that some churches disagree with. Divorce is one of them. Churches are free to tell their congregants they should not divorce – but to attempt to change the legal status of this activity so that divorce is not available to persons who are not members of the church is to cross that church-state boundary.

If churches want to push others for legislative reform based on their particular religious interpretation of how things should be, then those churches stop acting as churches. They become lobbying units and should not enjoy the legal and financial protection of churches.

Perhaps we have gone too far in this country by allowing religious ministers to perform legally valid marriages. This practice may have blurred the lines between state and church. Perhaps it is time for comprehensive marriage reform.

Perhaps the only legal marriages should be civil marriages. Then churches could “bless” any legal marriage with a religious ceremony – or not. This is the way people get married in Mexico. The legal marriage is a document-signing ceremony at town hall. Religious persons are then free to have a church ceremony – or not. There is no confusion between the sacred and the secular.

My three friends should have the right to have the legal marriages they want. Marriage reform in this country should begin with removing the right to legally contract a marriage from the hands of religious ministers and putting it back where it belongs – as a contract-signing ceremony at City Hall. We don’t let churches legally terminate marriages; why should we let them contract them?

Elizabeth Siler lives in Pullman and teaches English at Washington State University.


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