Legal Marriage V.S. The Sacrament of Marriage

Several thousands of years ago, my native country of Sweden was covered in a kilometer thick layer of ice, better known as the Ice Age, and as recently as one thousand years ago marriage was considered a business arrangement by my ancestors.

It was between a man and a woman, yes, but only because that is the only combination that can naturally procreate. If it was mutually beneficial for two families to join forces and resources, a marriage was considered a semi-permanent way to seal the agreement. “You people get to use our lands and silver mines, we get to use your vast agricultural resources, and to guarantee that we treat each other fairly, my daughter will marry your son.” That kind of deal.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the Christian Church entered the scene that marriage became a legally binding ceremony. Until they interfered, it was betrothal that was considered binding by law, and only death could break that agreement. Marriage however, as any other business contract, could be ended at any time if either party so choose.

To give you an example, if my marriage had taken place 2,000 years ago in Sweden, and my husband’s family had decided to pursue an armed conflict with my father, that would end the marriage and I would side with my blood relatives, as any decent child would. I would also be free to remarry whomever brought his warriors to my father’s aid, since marriage ultimately was not considered a personal matter, but a family affair.

Then the Christian Church arrived and added religion into the mix. They stipulated that a marriage was as legally binding as a betrothal, in fact that it was more so, and that a couple had to be married by a priest in order for the ceremony and agreement to be binding. If you ask me, that is where the confusion begun, because ever since then, legal marriage and church marriage have been inseparable.

And that is where it gets messy. The thing with Proposition 8 and any other “should gays be allowed to marry?” matter, is that it doesn’t make the distinction between church marriage and the legal status of marriage. In the United States of America today, a married couple has exclusive rights that are denied to a couple in a civil union, or in a domestic partnership. I can never be forced to testify against my husband, for example. I have rights of visitation, joint parenting, medicaid and social security benefits. I have federal protection against domestic violence and the right to adopt or foster children together with my husband, to tax free property transfers and to the right to make medical decisions and funeral decisions.

These legal rights are automatically bestowed on anyone who marries and stays married within the US. They are granted by the state and the federal government and upheld by these same legal entities, and all I had to do to get them was to exchange rings and wows with my now-husband in front of witnesses and an officiant with the right to marry us (In our case, the youth pastor of the church I grew up in.)

These rights are not separate from the sacrament of marriage in the minds of most opponents of gay marriage, but they should be. They should be, because the legal concept of marriage and the religious sacrament are not one and the same. In fact, it would probably be easier for everyone if they were not both referred to as “marriage”. The legal contract, between two conscenting adults, is a matter for the state and the state only. And becuase it is the state, it should be flat out illegal for them to discriminate against any citizen who is of legal age and who is capable of entering into a binding contract.

To put it another way, as a woman it is my constitutional right to marry any man I choose. To deny men that same right just becase they were born men becomes discriminatory when you look at it from a purely legal point of view. Similarly, to deny me the right to marry any woman of my choice just because I wasn’t born a man, is equally discriminatory.

There is a large number of churches out there who do not see things this way. They want the right to deny marriage to anyone their faith says is unfit for marriage, be it a homosexual or a divorcee. In the interest of religious freedom, I want them to have that right of denying a ceremony to anyone they feel the need to deny. That right is covered under the part of the US constitution that deals with freedom of religion, and it would be morally and legally wrong to deny them that right.

This is why the legally binding contract of marriage and the holy sacrament of marriage need to be two separate concepts. Because from a purely religious standpoint, there are a lot of denominations and faiths who simply cannot accept gay marriage and never will, and once again, it is wrong to force them to.

However, it is equally wrong, and more to the point illegal, for the United States of America to base any legislation on a religious doctrine or principle. Since that is the case, for the state to deny any citizen the right to marry a legal adult capable of consenting to the contract, would be discrimination. For that same state to force any religious group to conform to the laws of the state, would violate the separation of church and state that is written into the constitution.

My apologies for the rambling. It’s just that as a former history major, who has spent a lot of time reading about social traditions and norms in Europe over the past 1,000 or so years, the idea of “traditional marriage” as one man and one woman living happily ever after in True Love, is a bit laughable to me. A man marrying a woman because the two are deeply in love with each other is a very recent notion, and it does no one any good to deny that fact.

The legal rights and priviliges of marriage need to be available to all citizens of the US. The religious concept of marriage is the province of each religion, be it Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, or any other, and it is up to them who they extend their blessings to. It is not my business, and no one can force them. However, the state is not a religious institution, and should not act as one.

My two cents, or five, as it were.



Filed under Politics

4 responses to “Legal Marriage V.S. The Sacrament of Marriage

  1. Torlin

    “to deny me the right to marry any woman of my choice just because I wasn’t born a man, is … discriminatory”.
    That’s not the only way to define your right. Here is an alternative: Any man or woman has the right to marry anyone of the opposite sex. There is no discrimination in that.

    Your position that we should separate civil union from marriage has been advocated in Sweden too, but unfortunately the trend is towards the state (and the media!) forcing churches to redefine their views on marriage.

    Still, there are questions that needs to be sorted out.

    With religion there usually comes some kind of ideal. In Christianity it is one man and one woman in a lifelong and faithful relationship. This is the ideal, whichs means that any other relationship is considered inferior in some way.

    But what if you lack this kind of ideal to which you can compare different kinds of relationships? The only option I have found so far (and in this I follow the well known Swedish, atheistic!, philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö) is to judge relationships after how well they conform to other moral standards, standards that has no intrinsic connection to the marriage/relationship realm. For example, Is it voluntary? Does it involve violence or force of any kind? Is one party trying to decieve the other?

    By asking this kind of questions you can conclude that child abuse is wrong, and of course rape. But what about a brother and sister marrying each other? Or two men and two women? Torbjörn Tännsjö argues that we should legalise all these kinds of relationships and give them equal legal status. As long as a relationship does not break any other law or moral standard it must be allowed, says Tännsjö.

    Now, this is not only a question of what is permitted. It is also a matter of what we teach our children and how we guide our teenagers. What ideals do we give them when it comes to shaping their own family? What can we do to give the children of next generation (and the next one after that) the best chances of growing up in a stable family with a healthy realtion to both mum and dad? What kind of ethics gives us the most sustainable society?

  2. “That’s not the only way to define your right. Here is an alternative: Any man or woman has the right to marry anyone of the opposite sex. There is no discrimination in that.”

    Granted. However, the right to marry the person you love and want to spend the rest of your life with, is as of right now only extended to heterosexual citizens.

    I’m not suggesting that removing all religious ideals from marriage legislation will solve any problems. I am however trying to reason my way towards whether or not these religious ideals are valid reasons to deny the homosexual part of the population the right to marry each other. And if the religious ideals are removed from the equation, the vast majority of arguments against gay marriage boil down to either the famous ick-factor, not wanting them to, and fear of what happens to society if it is permitted.

    It doesn’t mean religious ideals automatically are wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t belong in the public forum. However, in a country where no one religion controls the government, perhaps that one religion’s ideals should not be controlling the legislation?

  3. Torlin

    I agree that legislation and sacrament are two things that should not be mixed up. But the state must, if needed, protect the the rights and promote the interests of the children if they clash with the interests of adults. And in this matter I think they do. Every pro-gay-marriage argument I have heard so far has been centered around adult peoples’ right to express their personality or to choose with whom to live. But anti-gay-marriage arguments often arise from concern for the children.

    Now, this means that what I am arguing against is not primarily gay marriage, but gay parenthood. But if you allow gays to marry but deny them the right to have children (by means of insemination, surrogate mothers or otherwise) then you’re probably discriminating. Therefor it is important to me that a same sex relationship is not labeled a marriage. That would clarify the legal situation. And it would make it less likely that churches will be forced to redefine their theology, forced in a way that would break our religious freedom.

    But remember, I speak out of the Swedish situation.

  4. And the situation is going to be different in different countries. One of the biggest problems with this debate in several states in the US is that Civil Unions do not have the same legal status or rights as a marriage, which means that many basic rights that married heterosexual couples take for granted are kept from homosexual couples as long as the right to marry is taken from them.

    The right not to testify in court against your spouse, the right to write a car over to your spouse without sever tax complications, the right to medical coverage through your spouse’s employee health plan, and the list goes on.

    If civil unions in ever state had the exact same legal rights as a marriage, the issue would not be nearly as pressing and the debate around it a lot less volatile

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