A Higher Authority


Ulster County, New York, District Attorney Donald A. Williams has filed criminal charges against two Unitarian ministers for performing same-sex marriages in New Paltz. The New York Times says this is "the first time members of the clergy have faced prosecution for conducting rites sanctioned by their church."

Williams says "it is not our intention to interfere with anyone's right to express their religious beliefs." He decided to charge the ministers because they "have publicly proclaimed their intent to perform civil marriages under the authority vested in them by New York state law, rather than performing purely religious ceremonies." By "solemnizing" unlicensed marriages, the ministers committed a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to a year in jail.

Since the unions over which these ministers presided simply do not count under New York law, I'm not sure what the point of prosecuting them is. Surely the people they married knew the score, so there's no issue of fraud. But the distinction Williams emphasizes–between a religious sacrament and a civil arrangement–is one that deserves more attention in the debate over the "sacred institution."