Church and State

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.



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.

6 thoughts on “Church and State

  1. I agree with your stance, but, you are spinning your wheels, because in this state, it’s never going to change. Some battles will always be with us, and by denying the paperwork for heteros is just like throwing sand in your face.


  2. Diane, I agree with you that marriage equality in Idaho is a daunting task, but I also believe that we are called to work for change just because we are called to speak out against injustice. A positive outcome of our work, while it would be great, is not the only reason we stand up to injustice. Thanks for your comment!


  3. You are right to be a fan of separation of church and state, which is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The principle thus rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”


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  5. I applaud you AND your session! More than anything, I am amazed by your session. If I posted or preached such a message, I would be looking for a new position. As it is, I am working hard to keep my church connected to the wider denomination.

    I’m married to a large farmer, my family is here…I’m land locked. Thus, I largely remain silent. A few trusted congregants know how I feel and how I have voted. Sadly, my views are not the views of many within the congregation. It would not be safe for me to be as opened as you have been here.

    More than anything, you offer me and your session offer me hope.

    Many Blessings ~ Sandi


    • Thanks, Sandi. I am blessed to work with a session who is willing to really engage and make stands. I understand why your situation is different, and pray that you can continue to minister with integrity and will also pray that the congregation you serve might be open to new ways of being church.
      It isn’t without risk, even in my congregation, but we are seeing real growth since we’ve been more open and inclusive. And once you’ve seen people come to your church and say, “I’m just so thankful I can worship God again. I was told to leave my church when I came out and I’ve really missed worship and being a part of a faith community”, it is hard to remember why the church has historically been so opposed. Isn’t this why Jesus called us? To welcome people and create community?
      Blessings to you.


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