Monday, December 28, 2009

I don't want to be an agent of the state in weddings anymore

For a long time I have been uncomfortable being an agent of the state in performing marriage ceremonies. That discomfort was heightened recently as I have been completing a project on the struggle for religious liberty in Virginia in the late 1700's. Back then, those who were not part of the state-sponsored church, including Baptists, had a hard-fought battle getting their marriages recognized by the state.

As I studied the efforts of Virginia Baptists to be free from state shackles in performing marriages, I remembered what I had to do years ago in order to officiate at a wedding ceremony in the Old Dominion. A member of my old home church in Appomattox County wanted me to do her marriage ceremony and I agreed. Having lived in Texas or North Carolina for my entire ministerial career, I didn't realize that I couldn't just show up in Virginia and solemnize a wedding--I had to go to the courthouse first.

Note these lines from the Domestic Relations section of the Code of Virginia:

When a minister of any religious denomination shall produce before the circuit
court of any county or city in this Commonwealth, or before the judge of such
court or before the clerk of such court at any time, proof of his ordination and
of his being in regular communion with the religious society of which he is a
reputed member, or proof that he holds a local minister's license and is serving
as a regularly appointed pastor in his denomination, such court, or the judge
thereof, or the clerk of such court at any time, may make an order authorizing
such minister to celebrate the rites of matrimony in this Commonwealth.

At the time I jumped through that hoop rather hurriedly so I could do the ceremony and I did not reflect upon it much. Now it bugs me. I am giving serious consideration to contacting the courthouse in Appomattox to see if it is possible for me to rescind whatever approval I received. The idea of a government official making "an order authorizing" me "to celebrate the rites of matrimony" just galls me. The state has no business in giving me any sort of stamp of approval to perform a religious rite.

Here in North Carolina I didn't have to go to the courthouse with my ordination certificate. They will take my word for it that I am a minister. But I still have to work for the state by filling out certain paper work after a marriage ceremony and if I don't do things right I am subject to a fine. That bugs me too. As a minister of the gospel I don't like working for the government in performing wedding ceremonies.

How about this ... When a couple shows up at the courthouse to get their marriage license, let that process instead be the actual marriage in the eyes of the state. Then, for those who choose to do so, let them be joined in matrimony in the presence of God and before their family and friends with a minister officiating in a religious ceremony that has no government ties whatsoever. Take ministers out of the loop of the state requirements for marriage. We don't belong there.

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