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The meaning of m-a-r-r-i-a-g-e

I am reprinting below my opinion piece in today’s Morning Call, which can be found at

Our Two-Track “Marriage” System

Kim Davis, the County Clerk in Morehead, Kentucky, had been in jail for contempt of court, for refusing to comply with an order to issue marriage licenses to all “ eligible” couples, including those of the same sex. She claims that she is upholding her religious beliefs, because only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized by God.

Some may admire her stubbornness and others decry it, but the reality is that Ms. Davis is caught in a category mistake, one we have been stumbling over for a long time. There are two words spelled m-a-r-r-i-a-g-e in this country and these words describe sharply different things. When the state, in the person of Ms. Davis, issues a marriage license, it is acknowledging a secular contract which carries a host of secular privileges and responsibilities.

A civil “marriage” license and a religious “marriage” ceremony are two entirely different things. In fact, it would have been far better had the state not gotten into the “marriage” business in the first place. “Marriage” has so much religious and cultural baggage, that the state has no business presiding over it. The politicians who begged, in the political struggles around same-sex marriage, “Just don’t call it marriage,” were on the right track. What we really have, if we think about it clearly, is a system of government licensed civil unions, for gays and straights alike.

For some couples, this is enough. For others, the secular license takes a back seat to a religious ceremony, with different meanings depending on the relevant religion. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament that can be undone only by death. For Jews and Muslims, it is a religious contract.   For Mormons, it lasts beyond the grave and through eternity.   The United States is fortunate to be host to hundreds of different religions and denominations, with many different understandings of marriage.

By the same token, the requirements for marriage differ sharply between the civil and religious realms. For the state, one must be of age and not currently married to someone else. The state has no interest in one’s religious status, one’s marital history, one’s plans for procreation and childrearing. By contrast, Roman Catholics require that neither of the parties had a previous marriage that ended in divorce; many rabbis refuse to preside over marriages in which both members are not Jewish; Mormons have very specific criteria for who can get married in the Temple; the list goes on.   In fact, following Kim Davis’s logic, a Catholic clerk could have refused Davis a license in all but the first of her four marriages, since her first three ended in divorce.

I respect Ms. Davis’s insistence that her form of Christianity does not recognize same-sex unions. It would be outrageous, a true blow against religious liberty, if the state were to coerce Ms. Davis’s church to preside over such a union. But that is not what is at stake here. The “marriage” license Ms Davis is required to issue in her capacity as a public servant is a purely secular document with a purely secular meaning. Too bad we can’t start over again and call it something different.

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