President Bush once said that marriage is a sacred institution and should be reserved for the union of one man and one woman. If this is the case -- and most Americans would agree with him on this -- then I have to ask: Why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage really is a sacred institution, then why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation that affirms separation of church and state?
Personally, as a Baptist minister, I always feel a bit uneasy at the end of the weddings that I perform when I have to say, "And now, by the authority given unto me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I pronounce you husband and wife." Having performed a variety of religious exercises, such as reading scripture, saying prayers, giving a biblically-based homily and pronouncing blessings on the marriage, why am I required to suddenly shift to being an agent of the state? Doesn't it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted? Isn't it a conflict for me to unify my pastoral role with that of an agent of the state?
Allow me to suggest a way out of this apparent conflict and the difficult questions being raised these days about whether our country should approve of homosexual marriages. I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples, and leave marriage in the hands of the church and other religious entities. That's the way it works in Holland. If a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, the couple goes down to the city hall and legally registers, securing all the rights and privileges a couple has under Dutch law. Then, if the couple wants the relationship blessed -- to be married -- they goes to a church, synagogue or other house of worship. Marriage should be viewed as an institution ordained by God and should be out of the control of the state.
Of course, homosexual couples could go to churches that welcome and affirm gay marriages and get their unions blessed there. Isn't that the way it should be in a nation that guarantees people the right to promote religion according to their personal convictions? If such a proposal became normative, those like myself who hold to traditional beliefs about marriage would go to traditional churches where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld, and we would have our marriages blessed there. And secularists who are unlikely to do anything that smacks of religion would probably just throw a party to celebrate a new union. Marriage would be preserved as a religious institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody's personal convictions about this highly charged issue would have to be compromised.
It is not likely that this will happen in the near future, but many sociologists tell us that America is eventually headed toward making this the way we do marriage.