Permission to Marry

Monday, March 26, 2012

George Washington never got a marriage license. Not only that, but if the members of his church could have seen into the future, they would probably be outraged at the current level of state involvement in what they considered (and most of us still do consider) a union ordained by God.

The U.S. Supreme Court seemed to agree in 1877, when they ruled that states should not be able to mandate a marriage license by law. Rather, they said, state laws concerning marriage should only be directives:

A statute may declare that no marriages shall be valid unless they are solemnized in a prescribed manner, but such an enactment is a very different thing from a law requiring all marriages to be entered into in the presence of a magistrate or a clergyman or that it be preceded by a license, or publication of banns, or be attested by witnesses. Such formal provisions may be construed as merely directory, instead of being treated as destructive of a common law right to form the marriage relation by words of present assent. (Meister v. Moore, 96 U.S. 76, 1877)
It is interesting that many states decided to require marriage licenses due to reasons of public health safety. In the early 20th century, marriage license laws in several states were written by lawmakers who mistakenly thought that limiting marriage would be helpful for improving the genetics of the country's population. Marriage license laws were put into effect in most states to limit interracial marriage during that time in our nation's history. It's hard to think that these laws weren't racially motivated. This sort of legislation was condemned on scientific grounds in a 1915 article in the Journal of Heredity (Rucker, W.C., Volume 6, No. 1, pp. 219-226).

Even after courts began to overrule interracial marriage laws in the mid-20th century, states continued to require permission to marry, but the purpose in this new, "enlightened" era, was redistribution of wealth, favoring married couples and families (Coontz, S., "Taking Marriage Private", The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2007). This state of affairs hasn't changed very much, for better or for worse.

I bring you this bit of history so my brothers and sisters in Christ can understand, hopefully, my feelings on last night's ruling for homosexual marriage in New York. Even homosexuals seem to ignore American history prior to the 1960s when they talk about their right to marry. All I've heard from those rejoicing over the ruling is that it was a great decision for equality, because gay couples can now enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples. "Equality" is the word of the day.

If we would think in terms of all American history, and indeed of world history, we would not even be talking about equality when it comes to marriage. We would be talking only in terms of human liberty. The marriage license is an invention of 16th-century Europe. No government before that time was interested in marriage except for royal marriages uniting kingdoms. The Roman government in Jesus' day didn't require permission for marriage. It was a matter among families; a matter within the church.

As far as I can tell from my reading of scripture, God does not approve of homosexual activities. I use the word "activities" because I've seen nothing in the Bible about romantic, nonsexual relationships between members of the same sex. I've never heard of a gay couple that didn't have sex anyway, so it's a moot point. Based on the Bible's teachings, I don't think the church should condone homosexual activities or ignore those in their midst who practice them. Such activities are cause for church discipline, just as Paul instructed for a church member involved in adultery.

However, I do consider last night's ruling a small victory for human freedom in New York. Homosexual marriage should be a matter for a person's family and/or church to deal with, not a matter for civil government. But this is true of heterosexual marriage, too. When people call last night's ruling a victory for equality, I perceive that they fail to realize how much bigger the victory could have been. I wonder if they, and indeed all of us, realize that we should be embarrassed that we still have to ask the state for permission to marry. How can we, as the church, allow the intrusion of government into something so intensely personal as marriage?

Do we really need to ask permission? Instead of asking the state to allow gay couples permission to marry, shouldn't New Yorkers and couples across the nation simply have denied the state permission to require a license? It wouldn't be that difficult. If everyone simply stopped going to the court for a license to marry, the state would no longer have any power in this matter. We don't always have to enter a voting booth to make changes. We have the power of numbers. We can simply say "enough".

But perhaps most of us are afraid of having that much freedom. Maybe we like the tax benefits that come with marriage. But even with those benefits comes a reminder that we are involuntarily taxed at nearly every level of government on a daily basis. Should we thank the government for not taking so much of the money we've earned because we got married? Do we really need this kind of government parenting? Involuntary taxation is also something we allow, perhaps because we're afraid of what a truly free nation would look like. But if everyone decided to stop paying taxes on the same day, and the government melted away as a result, would it really be so bad?

A truly free country? I think it's one of the best things that could happen for us.

[Originally published June 25, 2011, on the blog On Faith and Authority]