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Church and State in Avoidable Slow Motion Collision

Posted in Church and State

First Published August 16, 2009 – Well, we now know this recommendation was not adopted and that same-sex marriage was legalized. But this is what I thought and I haven’t changed my mind.


Here is a quote from the website of the US Embassy in Japan:

“If you wish to marry in Japan, you will do so according to Japanese law. Marriage in Japan consists of a civil marriage registration by the couple at a Japanese municipal government office. Only this civil registration constitutes a legal marriage in Japan. Ceremonies performed by religious or fraternal bodies in Japan, while perhaps more meaningful for you, are not legal marriages.”

That may seem strange, but we have a similar situation in The United States. A minister may preside over a beautiful and impressive ceremony with multiple attendants, hundreds of guests, and Holy Communion, but until the paperwork is done and the government authorities receive appropriate documentation, the marriage is not legal. To the religious faithful, these details are trivial distractions from the significance of the religious ceremony and vows. From the legal viewpoint, it is not even necessary to involve a religious organization at all since simple vows and signing of documents in front of a Justice of the Peace are just as valid as a 500 guest church wedding.

The problem here that needs to be corrected is that our government has made religious leaders agents of the state, an authority they should not have and a responsibility they should not bear. As popular public understanding of marriage changes, church and state are colliding as some churches currently prohibited from doing what they believe is the right thing, joining same sex couples, are refusing to perform any wedding ceremonies at all until they can legally perform same-sex ceremonies.

Government has a stake in this issue because income and estate tax laws, for example, have been structured to recognize a once commonly accepted positive value of men and women joining in marriage to “become one” and to live together and share resources and support each other and to give birth to and raise children in such an environment. Whether or not such favorable laws should apply to unions that are not for these traditional purposes is a matter for government to decide. Whether or not any particular religious organization wants to support and encourage and bless such unions is a different matter entirely and each religious organization must have the right to choose whether or not to do so.

There seems to be little doubt that same sex couples will eventually be granted some form of legal union with benefits as a matter of fairness or civil rights. I suggest that in that case, such benefits should also be granted to any two persons who wish to form a civil union for economic or personal benefit. Two life-long single friends, two siblings, or a child and an aging parent for example could well benefit from some of the same provisions and should not be discriminated against once the original reasons for the provisions are abandoned. No such changes, however, whatever their extent, should result in pressures on religious organizations and their leaders, some of whom will choose to bless non-traditional unions and some of whom will choose not to do so. Even among Christians, there is strong disagreement on this issue.

The easy solution is to get clear separation between the responsibilities of government and religious organizations by establishing Legal Civil Unions and Religious Blessings of such as two separate and independent processes. I imagine that a Christian pastor, for example, might make the Civil Marriage a small but essential part of the counseling process leading up to the church Marriage Blessing or Sacrament of Holy Matrimony that can be performed if the requirements of that particular church are met. Instead of the state telling the pastor what must be done to have a legal marriage, the pastor will be telling the couple planning to marry what must be done before the union can be blessed by the church. Other religious leaders may choose to conduct a religious ceremony whether the legal requirements are met or not but with clear recognition that such a ceremony has no legal standing. Theologically, there is no more reason for the state to be involved in the sacrament of marriage than in the sacrament of baptism. Current practice, probably a relic of the Holy Roman Empire, needs to be changed.

For a similar view from someone who thinks churches should get out of the wedding business and leave it up to government, check out

Back to Japan for a last thought. I lived in Japan for a little more than three years and used to carry in my wallet an advertisement for a “faux priest” to conduct Christian style weddings. Check out the BBC news story (link below) on that phenomenon. According to the article, “People like the dress, the kiss and the image. Japanese Christians make up only 1% of the country, but now about 90% of weddings are in the Christian style.” It makes me wonder if any of the church weddings in the US are similarly motivated.