Marriage Mandate

Are Church And State Headed For A Shotgun Wedding?

I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and I occasionally perform wedding ceremonies. In the summer of 2001, I had the privilege of doing one for two former employees of Americans United. That event was held in Denver, Colo., with the parties deciding to use many elements of a traditional Jewish ceremony, with Hebrew prayers done by family members, but without any co-officiating by a rabbi.

About a year earlier I did one at a Unitarian church in Maryland where members of the bride's family came from a Chinese background. I got involved in that event because of quirks in Maryland law dealing with who can perform weddings and where. That couple had wanted a federal judge they respected to perform the ceremony, but it turned out that the state wouldn't recognize the marriage if it was done by him solo in a church without a member of the clergy there too. The judge and I agreed on a separation of duties. (And I'm happy to report that the experience also motivated activists in Maryland to have the law changed last year.) Some of my weddings have been more conventional, with religious language and rituals that mirrored the beliefs of the couples.

One thing I don't do is perform marriage ceremonies for people I haven't spoken with at least a few times. You might call this "marriage counseling." I like to have some sense of what the couple thinks about the new arrangement of their lives and what meaning it has to them. It is also a way to learn a few anecdotes that can be woven into the homilies I give to indicate to the guests that I actually know something about the folks getting married. (We have probably all been at weddings where the officiant mispronounces the name of at least one party, which is very bad form indeed.)

Now President George W. Bush has decided that federal tax dollars should be used to promote strong marriages and family relationships. Some of this money is being used for things like tracking down deadbeat dads and making them pay child support a laudable goal few would quibble with. However, since this is the Bush administration we're talking about, there's also a "faith-based" component to the approach.

Bush's theory seems to be that houses of worship can solve every vexing social problem out there as long as they are given enough tax money to do it. And of course, Bush insists that they need not tone down their religiosity while doing it. Thus, a dressed-up Bible study for couples contemplating marriage can now be tax funded, as long as the minister claims it is pre-marital counseling.

When this idea first surfaced, even some traditional social conservatives thought the government probably had no business in the marriage counseling business. I remember one conservative writer finding it hilarious when I said on a radio show that perhaps a new Department of Love could be set up in the White House, headed by deep-voiced soul singer Barry White. However, plenty of the usual Religious Right suspects are now wildly enthusiastic over the idea, particularly since several of the first grants have gone to religious providers.

In most faith traditions, marriage is a sacrament, a particularly sacred religious event. Different religions have very different ideas about the nature of the marital relationship. Roman Catholics for example oppose divorce on any grounds. Other traditions absolutely oppose marriages between persons of different faith traditions. Even if you can accept the notion that stable marital relationships serve a secular purpose like increasing the chances that children will be well cared for, won't religious providers want to explain their reasoning in a spiritual context? Won't providers with a conservative Southern Baptist orientation, which generally includes support for male control of the family, be more likely to urge women to stay in marriages and accept male domination than label such thinking a close cousin to spousal abuse? Why in the world should governments fund programs with these or any other theological underpinning?

I am not, as you know, an enemy of government services. However, some issues in our culture, including marriage and reproductive choice, invoke a level of intimacy so deep that government involvement is suspect. Add to this a sense that specifically religious directives on the topics will get governmental imprimaturs as well, and I think you have a recipe for unwarranted and unconstitutional intrusion. There is considerable debate about which, if any, "marriage promotion" or counseling programs even are successful at the goal of keeping marriages together. Even if some religious ones turn out to meet the goal, I don't want to force everyone to fund the "God hates divorce" rationales of some.

As for me, whether it is a mixed marriage, a spiritually infused union or a wholly secular ceremony that I'm talking to a couple about, I will remain happy to get a free lunch or two out of the arrangement (and maybe another invitation to a traditional nine-course Chinese wedding dinner). I will not be seeking government funds to promote healthy relationships measured by my theological standards or those of President Bush. To that, I just can't say: "I do."

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State