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Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Agent of the State of North Carolina?

With the current news stories about the proposed amendment to the North Carolina constitution, in main determining that the only marriages recognized in this state will be those between one man and one woman, I see some problems that such an amendment would cause.  There already is a state law to that effect, but to include it in our constitution brings about some real questions.

For one thing, once something is in the constitution, it is nearly impossible to remove it.  The argument in favor of the amendment alludes to just that fact, because of the fear that having only a state law prohibiting other forms of marriage leaves it vulnerable to change and removal. But the effort to make such an amendment effective is a time-consuming effort, and by the time such an amendment would be included in the constitution the whole public understanding of marriage could have shifted course and we would be stuck with a piece of  concrete blocking our way to better legislation on the matter.  We must be wary of of legislating social order.

Other problems bubble up in this issue.  There would be unintended consequences, related to various domestic arrangements which provide for health care, welfare assistance, and legal matters related to conflictive domestic situations. 

As an ordained minister, I see problems with our whole concept of marriage partnerships which already exist. We needn't add more to the list.  Am I an agent of the state?  Marriages where I was the officiant early in my ministry included a term I don't see now in the Presbyterian ceremony.  It was worded something like this: "by my power as an ordained minister, and with the authority invested in me by the State of North Carolina, I now pronounce you husband and wife."  The words may not have been exactly that, but the meaning was there.  Now, I think: what did the State have to do with my power to officiate in weddings?  If the only authority I had to marry a couple came through my presence as an ordained minister, what business is it of the state?  If on the other hand, the state must be able to recognize me as duly ordained in order to validate that marriage, what role does a religious body play in the marriage vows?  On whose authority is a marriage valid?  That of the State or of the religious tradition?  And what about a non-religious wedding?  Whose authority is active?

Is marriage between two people, in this case a man and a woman in our state, a matter for civil records or for
the religious body if there is one?  Can a civil marriage take place in someone's back yard or must it be in the courthouse?  Why would location matter?  I officiated at one wedding in a hospital room.  Whose authority was active in that setting?

One question that is now added to the conundrums above: is marriage only for one male and one female of a certain age or older?  What, other than societal values, determines that standard?  Is there a hidden agenda here for legalizing only particular forms for a wedding and particular players in the act?  And what legalities are present when two adults are living as married without the ceremony and proper papers issued by the governing authority?  Common law marriage has been an accepted relationship in the past.  Would the marriage amendment outlaw that standard?

When I was ordained, I was ordained to a particular service in my Presbyterian denomination, to promise to uphold the standards of ministry with all people.  Nowhere in those ordination vows was there one about presiding at wedding ceremonies of anyone.  That service was left to my discretion as to my performing it or not.  The State was not the authority for that situation.  What happens to my authority to officiate at weddings if the State regulates just who may partake of that ceremony?

I realize I'm raising a lot of questions here, and many can't fully be answered as yet. On the other hand, I do believe that I am ordained not by the State but by those acting in the name of the Church, the Body of Christ.  For other religions those faith leaders are recognized in the name of their own belief systems.  But I am not an agent of the State in officiating in weddings any more than I would be when I preach, serve Holy Communion, or provide other ministerial services.  The one thing I can say in favor of this matter of an amendment to our constitution about what is legally acceptable for those entering marriage is that it brings to light all the many many questions that relate to the tension between Church and State, or religion and State.  We've just begun this investigation into the whole concept of authority -- whether it be a matter of the authority of the individual
or of the State.

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