On the Separation of Church and State

I wrote this for the Brethren Mennonite Council blog but thought I’d cross-post it since it’s been quiet here for the last few days. If you need more context, you might check out the previous post on the BMC blog about the Human Rights Campaign/Logo Presidential Forum that j alan meyer mentioned here a while ago.

At this point, it seems somewhat likely that beginning January 21, 2009, a new Democratic administration of the United States will start working to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and beef up Hate Crimes laws. Glad to hear it. What isn’t clear yet is whether the discussion around same-sex marriage/civil unions will be about “what is achievable,” “states rights,” “a man’s journey,” or “the separation of Church and State” (all themes from the recent HRC/Logo forum). The Democratic front runners (the Republicans declined the invitation) want us to know that they are all for lgbt equality … as long is it doesn’t interfere with their chances of getting elected by including marriage equality. It is encouraging to hear that in the coming election, the most electable Democratic position is 90% gay friendly (not as good as 100% gay friendly but I’ll take what I can get for now). We’ve come a long way in the last few years but plenty of work remains.

I don’t have more to say about either Edwards or Richardson for now but I think Clinton should fire whoever came up with those states rights talking points. Didn’t we learn anything from the civil rights movement? States Rights is code language for “long, painful, tortured journey to someone else’s equality” now just as much as it was forty or fifty years ago. She should know better than that.

What I really want to address is Obama’s call for the separation of Church and State, which, for him, somehow means separate but equal (he, of all people, should know where that gets us). I first heard him go down this road during the CNN/YouTube debates. He didn’t seem to have a very good grasp of his own talking points and he ended up confusing even himself with his tortured explanation. He did quite a bit better in the HRC/Logo forum as he seemed to have prepped with his aides more and at least didn’t confuse himself. When he was done I said to myself “well…that’s almost a good idea.”

He seems to understand that separate and unequal is worse than separate but equal so he calls for “strong civil unions” instead of “weak civil unions.” He seems to understand that there is something wrong with the fact that our system mixes religion and the government when it comes to marriage but his proposal only partially fixes that problem. He calls for the separation of church and state so that churches can choose whether or not to discriminate (no change here but, eh, fair play to freedom of religion and speech) and creates a (hopefully) equal version for teh gays when it comes to civil rights. The problem is that his proposal doesn’t actually separate church and state for anyone except same-sex couples. If it’s actually equal, why do we need a separate name and system for it? …other than the fact Obama wants to be elected?

I have better proposal: actually separating Church and State when it comes to marriage/union rights. It seems to be in the interest of the government to reward people when they decide to join forces for economic and reproductive purposes. So, any couple (queer or non) should be able to go to their local Department of Civil Unions (DOCU), sign a contract in the presence of some witnesses and maybe a Justice of the Peace and they can receive their Civil Union License (CUL). The license would entitle them to a standard set of rights and responsibilities currently offered by the government under the category of marriage (which will be discontinued as far as the State is concerned). The Church could then do as it pleased in recognizing or not recognizing CULs.

The Church would be free and welcome to offer separate religious ceremonies to bless couples in their commitments to each other and decide which couples are worthy or not worthy of that religious blessing and recognition. The Church would not be part of issuing CULs. The Church could call these arrangements marriages, or unions, or whatever it pleased but they would not be civil unions. Any church could decide whether or not to recognize other church’s blessing ceremonies. Couples could even get a blessing in the church but not bother with a CUL if they felt like it, they just wouldn’t get the extra set of civil rights and responsibilities without it. That sounds more like the separation of Church and State to me and also appeals to my Anabaptistic sensibilities.

Comments (2)

  1. SteveK

    I completely agree. In fact, for my homeless and mentally ill folks, the government discourages them from marrying by charging them fees that they cannot afford and by reducing benefits for married couples. So I encourage people to have a marriage before God and not the government. We would have a wedding, give them a certificate of marriage, but not involve the government in it whatsoever.

    There is no place in the Bible in which the government was involved in marriage, that is a leftover of Christendom. I don’t feel it necessary for them to be involved at all, so why invite them to the party?

    Steve K

  2. Skylark

    “No place in the Bible in which the government was involved in marriage,” eh? Forgive me for pointing out several of us on this blog aren’t overly enthused with that line of reasoning.

    The thing is, I think there needs to be some way people can get married or formally commit to each other in a venue other than a church. (And gain the legal benefits currently available.) Not everyone feels comfortable in a church. Not everyone considers him/herself even moderately Christian. When we’re talking about a person subverting familial and subcultural pressure about marriage, a Justice of the Peace does look an awful lot like a neutral party. Who would be a better neutral party who could conduct a marriage ceremony for anyone?

    Yes, I say this knowing that not everyone uses the neutral party wisely. Someone in my family recently eloped to a different state and left with the new spouse shortly thereafter. I know the heartache this causes. But I wouldn’t blame that on the presence of government-run marriage officiates. It’s got a lot more to do with the couple in question.

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