The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, February 06, 2004  

As The President Takes His (Expected) Stand

By now everyone has heard of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s initial and subsequent rulings on gay marriage. Pretty clear-cut, I thought, at least in its latest incarnation. And, for those able to separate their individual passions and lunacies, entirely justified. Not much wiggle room left is there?

And so, pushed to the wall once and for all, President George W. Bush, the great prevaricator and equivocator, and would-be friend of spinner extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan, who has yet to mouth off on this, had this to say about court’s message to Massachusetts legislators:

Today’s ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is deeply troubling. Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. If activist judges insist on re-defining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process. We must do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.

Look, as most readers know, I’m a fairly religious guy, and a gay man who has been ambivalent, at most, on the whole marriage issue. But the more these idiots keep pushing their dopey, irrational agendas, the more likely I am to do the obvious, namely, to take a strong stand in my own defense and in defense of what my friend D. and I used to refer to, when code was called for, “PLUs,” meaning “people like us.”

I can’t help but wonder why other religious Americans, particularly those of the most self-righteously fervent variety who also are unfortunate enough to have been stricken by the apparently tenuous sexual orientation known as heterosexuality, cannot accept that, yes, marriage is “a sacred instituition,” but only within the context of organized religion. Outside of that -- and gee whiz, didn’t we find a revolution over this whole thing? -- marriage is a civil ceremony. More narrowly and more accurately, marriage is a government sponsored, supervised, and regulated transaction that sometimes, often even, is conducted in a religious setting.

I’m not married and never have been, so my familiarity with the benefits and obligations of civil society that state and local governments have granted to or expected of me include only the most common and the most the obvious, such as a driver’s license, a voter registration card, and a bunch of jury-duty summonses. There’s nothing “sacred” about any of these. Appropriately, there is no “sanctity” assigned to any of these documents or transactions.

I understand that. I can deal with that. Actually, I like it that way. If I wanted things to be different, I could always, on my own, invoke, respectively, Our Lady of the Highways, Our Lady of the Voting Booth, and Our Lady of the Jury Room, though even I wouldn’t take things that far.

And I ask: When two people get married, whether the ceremony occurs in a church, a synagogue, or even the Plaza Hotel, do they even understand what’s going on? Sure, everyone is happy and excited and all that. Great. Perhaps it’s to be expected they miss a legal nuance or two, especially when the alcohol starts flowing. But do they truly know what they’re doing?

When two people are united in marriage by a priest, a reverend, a pastor, a rabbi, an imam, a Unitarian guy, or whatever, they -- the two people getting married, I mean -- still have to sign a state-issued document attesting to that union. The priest, the reverend, the pastor, the rabbi, the imam, the Unitarian guy, or whatever, are acting as agents of the state. (“By the power vested in me by the state of ____, . . .”) What might to the clueless appear to be solely a religious ceremony only, actually has a dual nature. It is both religious and civil, with the civil aspect holding the higher legal authority.

It is for that reason that those who are joined in marriage by religious figures need not, in this country, subsequently or beforehand, submit to a strictly secular transaction. (It’s also why a divorce is not an annulment and an annulment is not a divorce.)

What is so hard, so difficult, about grasping that concept?

I’m so annoyed and disgusted by the wing-nuts that I wonder now about the wisdom of this procedure, meaning, giving to religious figures the authority, on behalf of the state, to conduct government business, if only because of the massive confusion it has brought about in certain quarters.

Maybe what’s needed right now is for those who choose to be married by a religious figure in a church, a temple, a mosque, or a Unitarian place to submit thereafter or beforehand to a strictly civil ceremony. There’s nothing like having to endure two such events to ram the appropriate notion, the basic legal simplicities, into the heads of the truly ignorant.

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