Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A TEACHABLE MOMENT: Holy Matrimony vs. Civil Marriage:

OR: Why the Bishop of Rhode Island Gets It So Wrong She Gets It Right

Rhode Island finds itself on the front-lines of the marriage equality battle as the House Judiciary Committee prepares for hearings on a same-sex marriage bill tomorrow (February 9th.) Last week, Bishop Geralyn Wolf, the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, weighed in with a statement to the online publication The Rhode Island Catholic.

It was a statement I frankly had to read a few times before I realized with some amazement that the good bishop had gotten it so stunningly wrong that she actually got it right! Let's take a look:
"As the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, I firmly support the traditional definition of marriage as the union between one male and one female. I believe that Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."
OK. This is the part she gets right. Which is NOT to say I agree with her about the "traditional definition of marriage." It IS to say that I also believe that "Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."

Not only shouldn't the legislature or courts be messing with sacred religious rites ... THEY CAN'T. See also: The First Amendment -- which guarantees freedom of religion and means we have the freedom within our various and sundry religious traditions to interpret how we define the sacred religious rite we call Holy Matrimony.

Roman Catholic priests have the freedom to refuse to marry previously divorced couples and Orthodox Rabbis have the freedom to refuse to preside at inter-faith weddings. And Bishop Wolf is as entitled to her belief that Holy Matrimony is only between "one male and one female" as I am to mine that the values that a couple bring to a marriage transcend the gender of the couple and that God blesses same and opposite sex marriages equally. How we sort that out together within our religious tradition is up to us to work out -- and in the Episcopal Church we are well and truly knee deep in the process working it out.

But (and it's a BIG "BUT" ...) ... none of that has ANYTHING to do with what the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow.

What the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow is whether the equal protection of CIVIL MARRIAGE -- the contract between two people who pledge to love, honor and cherish each other til death do they part -- should be equally extended to both same and opposite sex couples.

Another way to put is: Holy Matrimony = Apple. Civil Marriage = Orange.

So Bishop Wolf gets it right: the state should not be messing with Holy Matrimony. What she gets wrong is that the church shouldn't be messing with Equal Protection.

And here's where she gets it REALLY wrong ... in the second part of her statement:
Legislators could honor the civil rights of all individuals by eliminating the term “marriage” and substituting the term “civil unions.” Religious organizations could then make their own decisions as regards to the recognition or non-recognition of these “unions.”
On first glance, that seems like a kind of radically egalitarian solution that could have some appeal. Eliminate civil marriage altogether -- give everybody civil unions. Except (and it's a BIG "EXCEPT") ... civil unions do not guarantee the more than 1,138 federal rights, protections and responsibilities automatically granted to married heterosexual couples.

So Bishop Wolf -- in a misguided attempt to protect the already-protected-by-the-First Amendment-right to define Holy Matrimony as "the union between one male and one female" -- would take away from all Rhode Island families the protections given by federal marriage rights. Like the right to make decisions in a medical emergency. Like Social security benefits, income and estate tax benefits and disability benefits. Like inheritance rights, parenting rights and ... well, it's a very long list.

Throwing out all those rights, protections and responsibilities in order to "protect" marriage from gay and lesbian couples who both want and deserve equal protection for the life they are building together isn't protecting marriage. It's throwing out the baby out with the bathwater. The people of Rhode Island deserve better. And the Bishop of Rhode Island should know better.


JCF said...

Good Lord, that's sad.

Shame on you, Bishop Wolf.


[I sincerely hope other Episcopalians---lay and ordained, in and out of Rhode Island---will weigh in w/ a viewpoint better informed by Scripture, Tradition and REASON!]

Christopher said...

Were I of another faith or no faith at all, I would find her proposal downright insulting. So Christians now can swallow up an estate that belongs properly to humanity, namely, marriage? Marriage is not reserved for Christians and has never been. Indeed, quite the opposite, it took centuries for marriage to get much recognition by church leaders. This is what happens when simplistic notions of history on complex matters are bandied about without actually examining the historical remains we do have.

Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

As much as I support Bishop Geralyn on other issues, I must disagree with her here. Marriage is a fundamental human right, not to be denied based on the sexual orientation with which is a unique gift from God to every person.

Just Me said...

I belong in the camp that "marriage" is a religious rite (notice I didn't say Christian rite) and that the government needs to get out of the marriage business. All unions should be be civil unions as recognized by the states (since the feds don't actually have anything to do with "marriage" laws). All civil unions would be one and the same regarding taxes, insurance benefits, etc.

If a couple chooses to celebrate a marriage, they can do so in their church/temple/whatever of their choice.


But the "feds" do have a lot to do with what rights, responsibilities and protections families have ... and while I might agree (and I actually do) that unions as "rights" and marriage as "rites" makes total sense to suggest that as a solution to the challenge facing Rhode Island this week is a short sighted, badly though through argument that Bishop Wolf should rethink.

Nicole Porter said...

An Episcopal bishop said that?? Wow. I guess all hope isn't lost yet.

Just Me said...

I agree it's not going to affect anything this week, but I do think it's an area that could gain a lot of momentum if people began to work together.

IT said...

I'm with Susan. CIVIL marriage is about CIVIL rights, most of which are federal. As an equal citizen under the law, theoretically at least, my wife and I should be treated equally. It's why the several federal cases on DOMA are so obvious: the Fed currently treats legally married Americans differently according to their gender, and moreover, tells states like Massachusetts that they must do the same.

I have no problem with civil unions for ALL, but having conflated marriage with matrimony in our society, it is very unlikely they can be disentwined. And if that's the case, every American should be free to marry.

No single faith should be able to dictate who marries CIVILLY. In this way, marriage is nothing to do with religion in the US.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are looking forward to having our legal civil marriage blessed in church later this month.

W/V: dehum, as in Denying Marriage Equality DEHUManizes faithful LGBT people.


Mazel Tov! (And where are you registered? :)

IT said...

Susan, we had the big wedding 2 years ago in the summer of love. I treasure our wedding day and our marriage license, even though it doesn't mean anything to the Fed--yet.

We are doing it the way it should be done: we separated the civil marriage from the religious event.

Now that blessings are "legal" in DioSD, we will receive the intentional blessing of the church community and that is the only gift we want. :-)


Great answer (and there ARE some fabulous sales going on over at Crate & Barrel! :)

All best blessings to you and your beloved ... and greetings to my good, good friends at the cathedral in SD!

IT said...

really, I mean it--we don't want or need "stuff". We've reached a point in life where the intangible is far more important and time with /love of friends and family is the most valuable of all.


I totally get it. (I was just having some fun!) We were the same way ... and ended up telling the folks who seemed bound and determined to do SOMETHING to get us a rose bush for our garden ... so I love that everytime I drive in my driveway and see the rose bushes lining it I remember the good wishes and joy of our wedding day. (Which will be anniversary #5 coming up a week from Friday ... time flies!)

IT said...


Matthew said...

It would be one thing if she wanted "civil union" substituted for "marriage" for ALL couples -- including hetersexually married couples (including herself) and thereby wanted to eliminate marriage and thereby wanted ALL couples to forego the 1000 plus federal benefits so that they did not exist any more for anybody. Anything else simply does not treat gay couples equally.

Bateau Master said...

Bishop Wolf has it mostly right - here is the complete idea.

Government has no interest in Marriage - only the contract it represents. Therefore all current governmental recognized Marriages should be converted to "Registrations" The rights and responsibility delineated by government in marriage would be transferred to REGISTERED couples. Any two adults could become REGISTERED. And to become UN-REGISTERED would be as difficult as divorce.

If you wanted to become married - you would seek out whatever faith-based organization you wished. The Government would have no interest except - all that marry must also REGISTER. So you could be REGISTERED by not married, but you could not be married and not REGISTERED.

Additionally, REGISTRATION would be between any two adults regardless of relation or gender. All REGISTRATION is doing is establishing who has the rights and responsibilities.

That's the short version.

Erp said...

It has to be civil marriage not civil union since marriage is not only something recognized by the state and federal governments but also by other countries and in international law (see article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).