Gay Marriage: Two Debates, Not One

Mahan Siler
Guest Commentary
Asheville Citizens-Times

November 28, 2008

Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages, passed in California on November 4. Immediately protest rallies appeared around the country, including one in Asheville’s Pritchard Park recently. Thus noted, another round in the holy war over gay marriage.

What if we disentangled the church from the state on this matter, framing this debate, not as one, but as two important debates?

There is the civil debate: Should the government legalize gay marriage, thereby extending to same-sex couples the same responsibilities and benefits granted to opposite-sex married couples? What public policy best serves the common good?

There is the religious debate: Does the theological definition of the sanctity of marriage include the blessing of same-sex unions?

Currently, there is confusing interference both ways. The government attempts to define into law the “sanctity” of marriage, a theological issue that belongs to faith communities. And the religious communities, through their clergy, are agents of the state in legalizing marriage. Why, in our day of non-religious and religious pluralism, are we still embracing this vestige of history when the church defined marriage?

I have been a Baptist pastor for over fifty years. I have officiated at many marriage ceremonies, more than I can count. For many years I would conclude each ceremony with the declaration: “Now by the power invested in me by the state, I pronounce that you are husband and wife . . .” Along the way I dropped those words, perhaps an omission stemming from my discomfort at being an agent of the state. However, I made it a point to see that the marriage documents were duly signed and returned to the state office. This too I recall. For some couples I was more a necessary hurdle to jump on the way toward a legal marriage, than a pastor leading a worship service in which they expressed their vows to each other and to God.

I understand the outcry of pastors who fear that if the state legalizes gay marriage, they might be pressed to perform same-sex marriages or risk losing their church’s tax-exempt status? However, I too cry out. As a pastor who has offered the ritual of blessing for same-sex unions, I cry out for these gay couples, affirmed by the church, who continue without the civil benefits I enjoy in my marriage.

Is it not time to declare a clearer separation between church and state? Let the state get out of the business of defining sacred marriage. Let the church, synagogue, and mosque get out of the business of legalizing marriage.

This may be an idea whose time is coming. According to Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center, this summer Bishop Marc Handley Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California directed his clergy to “encourage all couples, regardless of orientation, to follow the pattern of first being married in a secular service and then being blessed in The Episcopal Church.” For the moment, the passage of Proposition 8 disrupts this pattern for same-sex couples.

In our own Western North Carolina community, three faith communities now practice this same procedure. On February 19, 2006, Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor of Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ announced his decision to discontinue legalizing marriages. He asks couples first to be legally married in a civil service, then declare their marital vows within a church worship service surrounded by family and friends. Similarly, Rev. Mark Ward, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, proclaimed the same procedural change on March 19 of the same year. In the early part of 2008, the Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting in Black Mountain came to the same decision.

Three reasons lay behind these unconventional actions. One, relinquish the role as agents of the state in legalizing marriages. Two, withdraw participation in a legal system built on heterosexual privilege. And three, though creating a slight inconvenience to couples, be able to explore more intentionally with couples the religious meaning of their ceremony and marriage covenant.

Separating the civil from the religious does not resolve the struggle. But it might help turn the thermostat down from holy war to honest debate. As citizens, seeking faithfulness to the U.S. Constitution, what is just for those in committed same-sex partnerships? As religious persons, seeking faithfulness to God, how will we respond to same-sex couples in our midst?

We have before us two critical debates. Eventual resolutions for both church and state are requiring from us deep listening, compassion and courage.

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