Here’s my marriage proposal

Mar 20, 2020 | Community

By William L. Rukeyser | Special to CalMatters

I write this as someone who will have been married 49 years this August, assuming we’re both so lucky. The officiate was a campus minister who said, “Now by the power vested in me by the State of Ohio …”

I’ve thought about that ever since, and conclude that it may be time for government to get out of the religion business and houses of worship to get out of the legal business.

Before ATMs and credit cards, local businesses often had signs like: “We have an agreement with the bank: they don’t change tires, we don’t cash checks.”

People got the message.

It’s a message both church and state should remember because the emotional business of marriage has caused religion and government to stray way outside their lanes.

How often have you heard a priest or rabbi or imam intone: “Now, by the power vested in me by the state, I now declare you …”

But if you think about it, the state and each religion have very different ideas about marriage which quite clearly in recent years often don’t coincide.

How did we get to this point? Simple. A long time ago there was no concept of separation of church (or whatever) and state.

In many communities there was just one religion and the religious leader recorded births and deaths and decided who could be buried in the cemetery and who could not. He, back then it was almost always he, also decided who could get married and who could not, and who could get divorced or have their marriages annulled. Back then there wasn’t any space dividing church and state.

You may have noticed that things have changed.

For the government, a marriage creates a legal relationship between the two people involved and between the couple and the government. For the religion, if there is one, it’s far more complex and often involves the relationship between the people involved and usually between the couple and the god or gods they worship.

Usually the state will recognize a marriage officiated by a minister. Sometimes the religion will not recognize a divorce granted by a judge.

Adding to this confusion, we use the same terms “wedding” and “marriage” regardless of where the ceremony takes place or who performs it.

Wouldn’t it simplify matters if the government and religion were both required to stay in their own lanes?

Since governments make and enforce the laws, including those governing contracts, shouldn’t the government be solely responsible for performing whatever ceremony results in a couple being in a legal status that recognizes they are bound to each other—and in California have joint property rights unless they have a really good pre-nup?

And shouldn’t the religious figure confine his or her role to performing whatever ceremony is most meaningful and beautiful to the adherents of that religion? The ceremonial language used would no longer be diluted by the very non-poetic, “Now, by the power vested in me by the state…”

This would also mean that some religions that do not share the views of the majority would be free to practice as they wish. The law of the land would make it clear that the contractual aspects of marriage were governed by the state. The spiritual conditions would be purely within the scope of the church, synagogue, mosque, etc.

However, if the religions got out of the contract business and the state got out of the worship business, the validity of the religious ceremonies would be purely in the eyes of the couples, trios or whatever, their co-religionists and whatever gods they believed in.

That is a Solomonic solution that should make everybody happy. Including the florists and bakery owners who might get additional business, although I am not sure how that campus minister in Ohio would take it.


William L. Rukeyser is a writer in Davis, who began his career as a broadcast reporter/editor and wrapped it up doing communications for nonprofits, working on three statewide campaigns and a variety of state and federal agencies along the way, He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

To read his past commentaries for CalMatters, please click here and here.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.


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