I dedicate this sermon to members of our congregation – Susan and Debra Freer. The state prevents Susan from contacting her three sons. And while the state denies them the rights and privileges of marriage, this Unitarian Universalist religious community embraces them within the love and care of our religious community.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and this company to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an estate ordained by God and sanctioned by the state.
That, give or take a few variations, is the opening of the wedding ceremony as found in most traditional Service books and as used by most conservative Christians. It contains the propositions in the issue likely to be one of the most controversial and divisive of this decade – perhaps even of this presidential election. The propositions are that matrimony, marriage, is an “estate” (a “condition under which persons live”) that is ordained by God and sanctioned by the state.
First, a clarification in relation to religion and the state. Religions and the clergy do not make marriages. They conduct weddings. Occasionally, when someone calls and asks if I will marry her, if the mood strikes me, I’m likely to say “I’m sorry, but I’m already married.” A couple may include some declarations, hopes, promises for their future relationship in their ceremony but a wedding is just that, a ceremony. The wedding ceremony has nothing whatsoever to do with the state. The state does not care what is said at the ceremony or who says it, nor should it. The state’s only requirement for legal marriage is that there be an officially-issued license, signed by an authorized person, who may or may not be a clergyperson. It could be an archbishop, a judge, or the captain of a garbage scow. The State of Georgia does not even have a record of who is authorized to sign wedding licenses.
Weddings are one thing; marriage is something else.
Marriage is an arrangement based on certain agreed-upon, largely culturally-determined ways in which two persons live together. Their intention is, generally, to share living space, to be partners in their future, and, in most cases, to raise children together. There are usually contracts involved, some imposed by the state in which the marriage is initiated to protect the rights of each person and to protect any children of the marriage. Some contracts are legally-drawn between the two parties (such as prenuptial agreements) and some contracts are unspoken, implicit (such as, “I will be this and you will be that.”).
Now, two people (or several, if so inclined) can live together without legal license to do so. They can insist that they are married “in the eyes of God” or “by nature.” And that’s all well and good unless they attempt to take that marriage to market, to school, or to the mortgage company. The unromantic reality is that the state does determine who can use the term “married” and who cannot – at least, to gain any benefit from doing so.
On what basis, then, does the state stick its non-too-attractive nose into all that romance and loveliness apparent at the wedding? And, pressed to the present extreme, where does the state get off declaring that marriage is not simply between two persons but specifically between one male and one female person? And where does the state get off deciding when marriage is no longer workable and can be dissolved? Can’t two adults be trusted to do what is best for them?
Well, you and I both know that quite a few adults cannot, in fact, be trusted to do what is best for them, let alone for someone else. But the state’s position is that, adult or not, even adults – and the state determines who is an adult – even adults cannot be trusted to do what is best for the public good.
“…for the public good.” Here’s where we run into trouble. Who decides what is for the public good? Of course, theoretically, we the citizens, define the public good: but let’s get back to that. What about the assumption that traditional, heterosexual marriage is for the public good and is the only acceptable model? After all, it is on the basis of this assumption that the present administration proposes to spend 1 1/2 billion dollars to promote and preserve marriage – heterosexual marriage, of course. Marriage needs this “boost,” so the official line goes, because marriage and the family are currently in grave danger and marriage and the family are the “bedrock” of our national public health and well being.
This myth of marriage is being pressed by one of the columnists I love to hate to read, Maggie Gallagher. Gallagher and a conservative sociologist have co-authored a book titled, “The Case for Marriage.” Marriage, they say, is on the rocks. Writing that “We are on the verge of becoming a post-marriage culture.” Mainly, they argue, it is time to put an end to easy divorce. Their argument in part (and presumably part of the administration’s expensive argument) is that, as everyone surely knows, more than fifty-percent of marriages end in divorce. And divorce is a bad thing: couples rather should, as Shakespeare wrote in one of his Sonnets, stick it out “…until the edge of doom.” That fifty percent statistic, claims the social and religious right, is evidence that our nation is in a state of moral decline.
In spite of the fact that Maggie Gallagher’s co-author is a sociologist, their book is filled mostly with unscientific cheerleading for heterosexual marriage and rhetoric about moral decline. The fact is that, as Maria Russo puts it in her article “The Marriage Hoax,” “…marriage has always been a shaky, contested, unreliable institution, and we’re kidding ourselves that it was ever any other way.” We may despair of the moral state of the nation, but there is no evidence whatsoever that that state is any worse than it was fifty years ago.
It is a strange position to take it seems to me, that we would all be better off if people who cannot bear each other were forced to remain married. Before that “edge of doom” line, Shakespeare wrote, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” Pure nonsense, of course. Love that does not alter when it finds, for example, a brutal, abusive partner, is not love but either fear or obsession which, too often, does end in doom for the abused.
A New York Times editorial points out that what America’s poor and broken families need is not marriage counseling, but jobs and some sliver of hope for the future. The article says, “To pour [this] money into marriage and relationship counseling for people without economic hope is a very expensive version of spitting into the wind.”
As for the sanctity of marriage and its spiritual value to our culture (the presidentially-declared “sacred institution between a man and a woman”) that must be preserved at all costs, let me just say this – Britney Spears. As you may have heard, one of pop-culture’s finest, Britney Spears, and a high school acquaintance she was “flying” with buzzed off from their high to a little wedding chapel and, on a lark, got married. Legally. Really married. Fifty-five hours later, the marriage was annulled. A columnist I do read for sheer pleasure, Ellen Goodman, suggested that Britney and Jason may have done more for gay marriage than all the gay rights advocates put together. Goodman wrote, “the ‘I dos’ became ‘I don’ts’, the vows were annulled and assorted folks chimed in with the same thought: ‘Hey, a man and woman can get married on a lark, but when a committed gay couple wants to make it legal, they’re accused of wrecking the institution?'”
This past week, a retired minister was, for some reason, given a quarter page in the Journal Constitution to bemoan the fact that being Christian and being saved apparently does little or nothing to guarantee the success of a marriage, since “saved Christians,” are included in the fifty percent divorce rate; so much for those “whom God has joined together.”
I say all this about marriage simply to fly the facts in the face of those who say that same-sex marriage will weaken and de-stabilize traditional marriage. The reality is clearly that traditional marriage has managed to be de-sanctified and destabilized quite well without the presence of same sex couples in its midst.
So why should those on the outside want to get in? Because marriage is, after all’s said, “a good thing.” For fifty percent of the people in the estate and for as long as love shall last, marriage is a way of living that blesses and helps to support their love. As George Eliot wrote, “What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined together to strengthen each other in all labor, to minister to each other in all sorrow, to share with each other in all gladness, to be one with each other in the silent unspoken memories.”
Certainly it isn’t necessary to have a wedding ceremony or to jump through the state’s hoops to enjoy this promise and quality of relationship. But, if making a public declaration of an intention to enter into a long-term partnership, to share responsibilities and to care for each other – if this is what is meant by “being married” then that marriage, heterosexual or same sex, provides a vase to hold those promises and intentions and helps to preserve and support them. There is the added benefit that happily married people (people in that bond of relatedness) have been shown to live longer and healthier lives than the unmarried, unrelated population in general. There is no question that the legal marriage does safeguard to some extent the rights of married persons and to some extent protects children of the marriage.
Here’s the rub: none of this needs to have, or ought to have, anything to do with the race, color, or gender of the married persons. To go back to Britney (as a model for all that is wrong with the marriage laws), why on earth should John and George or Harriet and Julia not enjoy for the rest of their lives together (or for as long as they mutually desire) all the rights, privileges, and protections that Britney and Jason enjoyed for fifty-five hours?
Because homosexual relationships are an abomination in the sight of God? What is in the sight of God is in the eyes of the beholder and ought to have nothing whatsoever to do with what is legal or illegal. If any religion chooses to deny same sex partners the benefit of clergy, that’s their business. But, again, a wedding is not a marriage and we can await the day when the state stays out of both.
Because same sex marriage would undermine and devalue traditional marriage? Please. People have been doing that for centuries.
Because the Bible, the Koran, our Sacred Scriptures do not support marriage between men or between women? Anyone who uses this argument must be suggesting that our laws ought to be grounded in religious faith.
Many people (people who, when it comes right down to it, know full well that any such objections to same sex marriage don’t hold up) can only admit to their prejudices and say simply that marriage is between a man and a woman. Putting aside any religious grounding for the assumption that marriage is between a man and a woman (“is” meaning only between a man and a woman), what’s left? As our former president said, that depends on what “is” is. If what is left after constitutionally irrelevant arguments are discounted is “marriage is between a man and a woman because-because it just is” well, that just won’t do. We won’t have it. That, too, we shall overcome.
The ground of law, absent religion (at least in a democratic state or a republic) is the agreement of the majority of the citizens of the state through their elected representatives. Therefore, laws stating that marriage must only be between a man and a woman are based on common agreement – much as the laws saying people of color may not drink out certain water fountains or sit in the front of the bus and that women may not vote were based on common agreement.
I’ve been around long enough to remember how unthinkable it was, for most people, that people of different races would marry. In many places, during my professional lifetime, it would be inviting the worst kind of violence for a black person to marry a white person. For that matter, I’ve been around long enough to remember how unthinkable it was, for many people, for people of different religions to marry.
Therefore, I suggest that there is nothing absolute at all about marriage being only between a man and a woman. Whatever laws there are or will be asserting such a thing are not ordained of God or grounded in nature but are expressive of public views and values. And public views and values change when enough citizens change their opinions and advise their representatives that they have changed them. That’s our job as citizens. To make sure our elected representatives know without a shadow of a doubt what our opinions are.
I am encouraged by the words of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as it upheld the decision of a lower court supporting same sex marriage. Supreme Court Justice Margaret Marshall said, in the words of the decision, “For no rational reason the marriage laws of the Commonwealth discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate than stain.” And, in case that wasn’t clear to some, she went on to say, “Barred access to the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage, a person who enters into an intimate exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one our community’s most rewarding and cherished institutions.”
The ruling won’t stand, of course. Massachusetts will, inevitably, enact an amendment that will declare what is is – that marriage is only between a man and a woman. But the movement in Vermont and Massachusetts is the shape of things to come.
For my part, I intend to continue to conduct “Services of Union,” ceremonies. Weddings. I can’t sign their wedding licenses as an agent of the state and give them the same rights, protections, and privileges as I give other people I marry. But, as far as I’m concerned, they will be as “married” as any other couple who stand before me, their friends, their family, and their household gods and proclaim their love, fidelity, and care.
And if, some day, my youngest grandson should become a minister, or a judge, or, better yet, the captain of a garbage scow, I believe that he will be able to celebrate the wedding of John and George or Harriet and Julia, sign their license, and send them off into married life until death or whatever them do part.