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Aug 21, 2010

Licensing Religion

The other day I had a discussion with a fellow who proposed an interesting idea. Now, I don’t think it would ever be accepted, and I am certainly not going to try to push any new public policy. Moreover, it suffers from the “genie is out of the bottle” problem, but nonetheless, I thought it was interesting enough to share.
He said that no government, not Federal nor State, should issue marriage licenses or make laws that address or recognize marital status. His argument is that marriage is a religious ceremony and the State governing it is as ludicrous as administering secular baptisms.
Wow – this is a pretty radical thought. Well, let’s slow down. Is it really that crazy?
After 3000 years of marital tradition, the first real secular ruling about marriage came from a King in England who defied the authority of the Pope. He justified his decision on fairly selfish reasoning, not because he wanted to improve the institution of marriage. That established, despite some pretty upsetting changes in Church organization, it didn’t really impact the practice of marriages being sanctioned religious covenants. However, it did set a precedent, but one that would not be acted upon for nearly another 350 years.
There were virtually no legal statutes addressing marriage in Europe and early America. There were no tax breaks, no secular registers, no blood tests. Marriage was a religious function, something to be kept separate from the State …until the Civil War. After the Fourteenth Amendment, the secular, governmental, legal processing of marriage came to be in full force. Why? Mainly to prevent blacks from marrying whites now that the former slaves were legal citizens.
Governmental authority over marriage continued into a fight between State and Federal control. A hundred years later, Civil Rights and the supremacy clause would overtake these Jim Crow laws. However, all this did was to give more control over marriage to the State and basically strip away the church tradition, making it meaningless and unnecessary. Marriage is now a legal status and function – and no longer a religious one.
My friend’s argument stated the removal of the Jim Crow laws about marriage was correct but methodically flawed. Rather than over-ruling them with more secular law, they should have been struck down under separation of Church and State. The justification for their removal should not have been based on Civil Rights, but rather marriage was a religious area where government has virtually no authority.
He further explained that this approach of letting religious groups control and sanction marriage would solve most of the social issues surrounding it today. If gays wanted to marry and found a religious group to sanction it, then so be it. If atheists wanted to “live in sin” without marrying, then fine; they don’t believe in sin anyway. The church leaders would be accountable to God, their tenants or whatever, but not to the State.
This is quite different than how we currently think. I further admit that this would radically change how divorce, child support, alimony and inheritance would be handled; however, without knowing what solutions would manifest for these issues in a governmentless marriage scenario, I can’t say whether that would be better or worse. I would imagine they would be more private and personally-tailored, though.
So as I close down this post, I want to remind everyone this is merely a hypothetical proposal of how it should be, not a political push to change the system. I don’t believe this model will happen, but it is an interesting and unusual way of looking at our modern issues of marriage. While I doubt it could solve every social problem revolving around marriage, I must consider that this seemingly radical idea is not only reasonable but it also preserves the original meaning and tradition of marriage.

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