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Marriage: Who or What Defines It?

If we define legal marriage based on a religious definition, are we defying 'separation of church and state?'

This story originally appeared on Morristown Patch on July 27, 2011. We are revisiting it because of the Feb. 16 approval of gay-marriage legislation by the New Jersey Assembly.

On one side of the gay marriage issue, there is the view of the majority of Americans who believe that the term "marriage" should only be used to describe a legally-committed relationship between a man and a woman, and not two people of the same gender.

Those who take this stance often reference the Judeo-Christian Bible as the authority on the matter.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe the ability to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, is a right and central to our liberty.

In America, we have the ideal of "Separation of Church and State."

In the First Amendment to our constitution, it is stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

While we are not allowed to teach religion in public schools, except on a very limited basis as part of social studies curriculum, we have currency that proclaims “In God We Trust.” If we define legal marriage by religious or spiritual concepts, could that be defying the concept of "separation of church and state?"

There are many complex questions surrounding an issue, so we turned to members of the community to get their thoughts on this very emotional and heated nationwide debate in light of the recent adoption of the Marriage Equality Law in New York State.

The Unitarian Universalist View

Jim Blanton, music director for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morris Township said, “Unitarian Universalists (UU) have historically supported all human rights, including racial, women's and gay rights and tend to be out front in these movements. Our Congregation has a rainbow sign on our front gate stating proudly that, 'We support all Marriages,'” Blanton said.

He said two UU ministers in the New Paltz, NY, area were threatened with arrest a few years ago for performing gay marriage ceremonies before it was legalized by the state legislature. "Our first principle is to affirm and promote 'the inherent worth and dignity of every person,'" Blanton said. 

While each Unitarian is expected to discover his or her own personal interpretation of their principles, Unitarian congregants tend to view allowing marriage for some, but not all people, as contrary to their spiritual tradition, Blanton said.

According to Morristown Attorney Noel C. Crowley, the concept of separation of church and state is not a concept that would apply to the same-sex marriage debate.

“Such thoughts are presumably anathema to those for whom 'separation of church and state' means that positions grounded in religion must be excluded from public debate," he said. "If such a concept were valid, those of us seeking to preserve laws that punish the crime of murder would be forced to avoid mentioning that murder is also enjoined by the Ten Commandments.

“Marriage is obviously a legal contract and, to persons who choose to so regard it, a union sanctioned and witnessed by the Almighty, involving vows affecting the spiritual destiny of the parties and their offspring,” Crowley said.

For Crowley, changes to the definition of marriage are a disruption to tradition.

“The changes constitute overturning an institution that has been venerated throughout countless centuries as the cornerstone of family life,” he said.

The Catholic View

On July 1, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage issued a statement denouncing the passage of Rhode Island’s civil union bill.

Bishop Salvitore Cordileone said, “marriage, the communion of husband and wife, is a unique reality that has no true parallel. The exclusive and permanent bond of a man and woman joined in marriage offers to the couple and to society a preeminent value that should not be eclipsed by governmental attempts to redesign fundamental realities by legal dictate.”

According to the statement, Bishop Cordileone concludes that elevating same-sex relationships to marital status with all of the rights of marriage, even by a different name, “fails justice because now the government is treating as similar two different realities that cannot be considered as analogous or equivalent in any way.”

The Episcopal View

On July 9, the Rev. Janet Broderick of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown officiated a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple who will be legally married in the state of New York in early August.

Prior to the final decision by lawmakers in New York, Episcopal Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester and the Task Force on Marriage Equality stated on July 21, “As we approach the implementation of the Marriage Equality Act, we rejoice in the extension of civil rights to same-sex couples in New York. We believe this extension to be fully consonant with the Good News of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed by the church.”

In an earlier statement, published on the Diocese of Rochester Web site on June 23, Bishop Singh assured clergy that they would only be expected to do that which they feel comfortable with.

“No priest will be forced to bless the civil marriage of the LGBT parishioners. We already practice a provision in our polity that does not mandate a priest to officiate in the marriage of a heterosexual couple for any reason,” Singh said. He also said that he will be setting up a task force to help his Diocese chart its course.

The task force will help us to “engage this journey reverently, deliberately and in congruence with Church Law. I pray that all New Yorkers, those who support and those who oppose this Act, will celebrate the fact that the human rights of a community have been affirmed by the state,” Singh said. “Since no one is free until everyone is free, Marriage Equality takes us closer to our pursuit of a more wholesome society." 

Dr. Donald DeFabio February 17, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Marriage has been defined as a union between male and female or female and male for thousands of years. Period. There needs to be another term for gay "marriage." It is a misuse of the word and rather than redefine a word, let's just make a separate distinction for two gay people dedicating their lives to one another legally. Then the adjective "gay" would not even be needed to define the union. There is no reason to call it a marriage, unless you want to provoke antagonism towards the Judeo-Christian population which has essentially already defined this term as a heterosexual union as far back as the Old Testament. We have squatter’s rights on this one.
Leslie Gray February 17, 2012 at 01:14 AM
If marriage is such an important religious practice, then the legal protections concerning it should be amended to be equal to everyone, not just one class of people. Just like it says in the Declaration of Independence; "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Show me where it says anything about one group being more equal than another?
Bill the Man February 23, 2012 at 03:49 PM
The idea of not changing the definition of marriage just because it's always been that way is ridiculous and ignores history. Society changes, views change and when these changes progress towards human rights and dignity it is a good thing for all humanity. In a few years your comment will be looked upon as backward and prejudice in the same way segregation and miscegenation laws are looked upon today.

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