Keep Your Religious Hands Off Our Legal Marriage

“The Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman,” people like to regurgitate when they are attacking the concept of same-sex marriage. I could spend my time going over some of the fucked-up shit people believed about marriage in biblical times, and how marriage in those days was basically a transfer of property from father to husband. I won’t bother, because it doesn’t matter what the Bible says about marriage, or what people believe the bible says.

If you think the Bible defines marriage so narrowly, well, your 1st Amendment right to the freedom of religion means that you can believe that, and you can belong to a church that does not perform weddings for same-sex couples. No government goon squad is going to kick down the door of your church and force your pastor to perform a gay wedding at gunpoint, regardless of what the conspiracy nutcases might say on religious YouTube channels.

When you step beyond the doors of your church and into the real world, what your pastor says the Bible says about marriage cease to be relevant. The power to stop gays from getting married in your church does not extended to, well, anywhere else. Outside your church, people don’t have to play by your made-up rules. I think, because weddings often take place in churches and are performed by members of the clergy, some Christians (and people of other religions) incorrectly believe that the religious component is somehow important to the validity of the marriage, that the sacrament of marriage is somehow necessary to the legal status of a marriage.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The officiant at a wedding has one very specific role to fulfill and his or her religious beliefs aren’t remotely pertinent to that role. To give you some idea to what degree the secular law of this county doesn’t care about the religious beliefs of the person performing the ceremony, the legal bar you have to clear to officiate at wedding is, to put it mildly, low. How low? I’m legally qualified to perform a wedding, and all I did was fill out a form on a web site. Note that, while I am available for such services, I’ve never actually performed a wedding and would need some lead time to get all my ducks in a row.

I do know enough to know how minimal, and not religious, the role of the wedding officiant is. If I were to perform a wedding, I would ask Person X if they wanted to marry Person Y, then ask person Y if they wanted to marry Person X. If they both say, I sign a piece of paper attesting, under penalty of perjury I assume, that I asked the question and they answered yes. Person X and Person Y also sign to confirm this is true, along with a witness.

All the pageantry we associate with a wedding, the dress, the music, the march down the aisle, the vows, is basically theater to give it a sense of a occasion. The legal requirements could be dispensed with in the corner booth of Denny’s between the time we order our Moon Over My Hammy and the food arrives.

Conversely, you could go through all of the religious machinations associated with having your marriage blessed by your particular denomination, but if you skip the paperwork I described above, then legally speaking, the wedding wasn’t much than an exercise in religious kabuki.

Thanks to our Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state, the fact that your church will not bless or consecrate someone’s marriage does not have any impact outside the walls of that church, and does not deny anyone the equal protection of the law. That applies beyond same-sex marriage, of course. If I were a divorced Catholic, the church might not recognize my second marriage, but that doesn’t make it any less legal.

As a bonus round, let’s talk about one of the more popular “slippery slope” arguments against same-sex marriage. “If we let gay people marry, what’s to stop them from legalizing polygamy?”

First, there is the simple practical point that, to my knowledge, there is no significant groundswell of people demanding the right to marry more than one spouse. There may be some people asking for it, but not enough to make a very impressive protest march.

I suppose that, if I were to argue this from a strictly libertarian point of view, the answer would be, “Nothing would stop them. If people want that, it should be allowed.”

However, that ignores the historical reality of polygamy, which places it on the opposite pole of progress from marriage equality. As practiced in human history (although I sure someone can cite exceptions), polygamy has almost universally involved one man marrying multiple wives, and the status of those wives within those marriages is typically closer to property than partnership. True marriage equality also implies heterosexual marriages where the legal status of each partner is indistinguishable from the other.

Is it possible for polygamy to coexist with marriage equality? Sure, but it would not polygamy as Brigham Young would recognize it. Polygamy mixed with marriage equality would imply that not only could men have multiple wives, but they could also have multiple husbands or a combination of the two. Women could, of course, also have multiple husbands and/or wives. And, because every spouse is legally equal, each one of your spouses could have multiple spouses of their own, and each one of those spouses can have multiple spouses, and so on. You could find yourself in a situation where your spouse is also the spouse of the spouse of the spouse of the spouse of the spouse of another one of your spouses.

I think I know why no one is asking for this to be legalized…

But, that also gets back to the libertarian argument that, if no one is being harmed, and everyone is consenting, there is no reason for the government to intervene to stop it. While I don’t think that, even if we legalized the form of polygamy I described, anyone who flock to take advantage of that right, I think you can also make that the argument that if certain segments of society, interracial couples in the 1960s and same-sex couples in the 2010s, have to go begging through to the courts to have their relationships legally “blessed,” then maybe the government is a bit too involved in marriage. I don’t think people should need the permission of the state to call themselves a family, and I don’t think that the government, through tax law and the like, should be in the business of social engineering by either encouraging or discouraging marriage.

The decision to create a family, and what shape it takes, is a personal one that doesn’t require guidance from any level of government.

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