The long standing tradition in the United States was that people would be married in a church. The minister always demanded that there be a marriage license before doing the service. Because a marriage in a church was a two part event. The two people getting married were, with the license from the state entering into a legal partnership contract. They were also receiving a blessing upon a promise, a vow they took to each other before God and witnesses. Those two parts: the legal contract and the blessing of the vow, were both done at the same time in the same service.
The legal contract opened up to that couple certain legal rights, privileges and obligations. The two became responsible for each other’s debts. They could buy property together. They became covered by state laws with regards to inheritances. They became defined as a legal entity and when companies offered health insurance for families they were both covered. Wherever there were limits and restriction put upon the population but exemptions were made for “family” they were included. This legal contract becomes the great issue when it comes to the question of divorce. The lawyers have to work to dissolve a past legal agreement.
The religious blessing upon the vow taken is the aspect of a marriage that is given by the religious ceremony. The service may have many different aspects. It may be done in many places now, but most religious service focus on the taking of the vows. “I…..(name)…. promise, before God and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful…..(husband/wife) (and then follows lots of possible conditions) in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, as long as we both shall live.”
This two level service has been the tradition in the United States for a very long time. It is not always this way in many other countries. In many other countries, couples have to go to the government and have the legal part done at the courthouse or judges chamber, and then if they would like to have the religious blessing upon a vow, they go to the church for a separate service. Our neighboring country Mexico has the two parts separated.
The recent decisions by many courts is that the state cannot prevent same sex people from the legal contract part of marriage. They are citizens who are entitled to the same legal rights and privileges as other citizens. They should be allowed to enter into the legal contract part of marriage. The religious claim that their relationship is sinful has no bearing on the their legal rights to enter into this legal agreement. The state does not prevent adulterers from getting the legal license to marry. The state does not prevent greedy people from getting legal papers to marry. The state does not prevent prideful people from getting legal linked. The sinful aspect of the applicants has no bearing on the states granting two same sex people from entering into this legal relationship that is called marriage.
Faith communities are certainly entitled to have their own opinion on whether or not they will grant to the same sex couple the religious blessing on the vow that they grant to heterosexual couples. There is no legal requirement that a church hold a service of witness to the taking of the vow or no legal requirement for the church to bless that union. This religious dimension of the wedding is separate and apart from the legal aspect. The churches that have decided to bless the union have probably moved in that direction because they believe that all of us are sinful people and that the sinful nature of the applicants should have no bearing on the blessing of a vow of love. Those churches that have agreed to have wedding services for same sex couples have decided that they will not have a different set of standards for one sin than for the other sins. We are all sinners who live by grace and these sinners, like all sinners, need all the grace from others that they can get. The keeping of this promise to love and be faithful is not easy to keep. Look at the heterosexual divorce rate. Those who are willing to make this vow, either just the legal contract or the contract and the religious part, need all the help they can get to keep it.