For years I have puzzled over the curious mix of civil and religious traditions in the United States that currently require a clergyperson to serve as both an agent of the state and a representative of her/his religious tradition when presiding at a couple’s marriage.
As current “religious” marriage ceremonies are conceived, it is almost impossible to untangle the church and state. However, a careful, historical reading of most “religious” ceremonies reveals which elements are required in order to guarantee that both members of a couple are coming of their own free will to enter into the legal contract of marriage, and which elements are determined by the particular faith community.
Separating the elements of civil and religious marriage, as the French have done since 1792, might provide a way to solve the heated debate over marriage that currently exists in many states. It would also ensure the separation of church and state in this matter.
In this scenario, couples would first be married in a civil marriage ceremony. This step would guarantee a couple’s legal rights, whether the couple was an opposite-sex couple or a same-sex couple. Following the civil ceremony, should the couple choose and their tradition permit, a religious marriage ceremony could be held.
This is not just a “gay rights” issue. The separation of civil and religious ceremonies would also provide another alternative: those persons who might lose benefits if they join in civil marriage could choose to have only a religious ceremony to honor their union. Over the years, I have heard time and time again from older couples that this option would honor their marriages before God so that they would no longer be living “in sin,” yet at the same time it would protect precious benefits that they would lose if they were legally married.
Separating civil and religious marriage is an idea whose time has come in the United States — by doing so, civil rights and benefits would be preserved, and the traditions of religious communities would be respected.