Here is my newsletter article for October. It is likely controversial, and so I wanted to publish it here so that we may begin the conversation that needs to take place. I don’t presume that everyone will agree with me about this topic, and so, especially if you do not, please help me understand your views.
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
I often hear about the “separation of church and state” on the news. This phrase is often thought to be from the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but it was actually in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to church leaders in Connecticut.
However the First Amendment is worded, I am a fan. I do not think the government should be in the business of religion. I do not think the government should tell people how they should worship and serve God. The First Amendment never prohibits people from being religious, but it reminds us that the state should not be the place where religious policy is determined.
In most situations, this separation between religion and government works pretty well and has allowed American religious expression to develop and flourish over the course of our history.
But there is one area where the aims of church and state have become intertwined—marriage. When a pastor, rabbi, imam, or other religious leader officiates at a wedding, they are authorized to speak for the State of Idaho and can sign the marriage license. The State of Idaho doesn’t require me to register with the State, to make sure that it is a “good marriage” (whatever that means), or to take any other steps to make sure that the weddings over which I preside have a real chance at success.
In American culture, there is no real distinction between a religious marriage, where a relationship is blessed by God and supported by the community of faith, and a civil marriage, where a relationship is blessed by the State and afforded the benefits of tax breaks, property inheritance, etc.
Additionally, the State of Idaho is allowed to tell me who I am allowed to marry and who I am not allowed to marry. In 2006, Amendment 2 passed in the State of Idaho, stating that:
A marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.
So, what should have been a religious decision became a state decision.
The Session and I have decided that this confusion of the line between the church and the state is a problem. And so from now on, I will not be signing marriage licenses as an agent of the State of Idaho for anyone until I am allowed to sign them for everyone. I will still officiate over the religious service for couples who have gone through pre-marital counseling and who want to be married in the eyes of God. But couples will have to find someone else who is willing to sign the paperwork that confers the benefits of a civil marriage.
Additionally, I am currently limited by our denomination’s polity concerning marriage. Until the Book of Order changes (and it is likely that the issue will be brought up at the next meeting of the General Assembly in the summer of 2012) I cannot (and will not) officiate at same gender weddings. But it is frustrating to me that I become an agent of injustice by abiding by our denomination’s polity. If a heterosexual couple in the church wanted me to preside at their religious wedding, I could easily do that. But I cannot be present for same gender couples who would like to join their lives together before God and this community.
In the coming months, the Session will be inviting you to participate in conversations about the issue of marriage, civil unions, and blessings. What does the Bible actually say about marriage? How does the Sacrament of Baptism connect to the issue of marriage rights? How can we stand with people facing injustice? The Session understands that there are many different views in our congregation on this topic and that is why we hope all of you will join in the conversation.