A Higher Authority

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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."

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  1. Laws control the lesser man… Right conduct controls the greater one.

  2. JB: That only shows how little you know me. If I had the power of personal exclusion from law I dislike, I could fit in most anywhere.

    It is better, I think, for the prosecution to highlight the issue, than to ignore the violation. We do agree that the Unitarians are violating the law? The wisdom of that law is a separate, related issue.

  3. Sam: The state controls all.

  4. Other “sacred institutions”:

    Witch burning
    Mandatory church attendance
    Forced conversions
    Torture
    Exile

    Have a nice day.

  5. Mark, you said, “It is better, I think, for the prosecution to highlight the issue, than to ignore the violation. We do agree that the Unitarians are violating the law? The wisdom of that law is a separate, related issue.”

    Do you then agree with the actions taken by the federal government in regards to medical marijuana sellers/cultivators in California, for example? Do you agree with the authorities in Texas who prosecuted a woman for selling sexual aids to women in the privacy of their homes? In both cases, the prosecuted are, inarguably, violating the law. But does it follow that our money should be spent actually prosecuting these people? To what end, do you think?

  6. Mark Fox,

    Some laws should be violated; but I am certain that you would have been the first to defend segregation in the American South, because it is “the law.”

  7. Les,

    The medical MJ sellers/cultivators are not “inarguably” breaking the law. If they are complying with Prop 215, and you condsider the law of the land to be governed by the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution, it is the federal government which is inarguably breaking the law.

  8. Oh, thanks a LOT, zymurgist! Now, I feel stupid! Hey, wait, that’s how I usually feel.

    Okay, okay, that was a terrible example. I could’ve just used people being arrested for growing small amounts of marijuana in their home for their own use in states without medical marijuana laws.

  9. “We do agree that the Unitarians are violating the law?”

    No. Not yet.

    The prosecutor said that the Rev. Kay A. Greenleaf and the Rev. Dawn Sangrey, “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.”

  10. Jean Bart,

    The entire point of civil disobedience is to highlight the injustice of a law by forcing the state to use its power against those that break it. Without negative consequence, civil disobedience is a pointless exercise in personal vanity.

  11. I must confess to being completely ignorant about how churches are vetted to perform these ceremonies. I know that bogus “churches” have been prosecuted for performing spurious “marriage” ceremonies…although you still see them advertised in magazines.

    If a goofy mayor had issued a lot of marriage licenses to people otherwise legally ineligible to marry (too young, blood kin, already married) then I suppose ministers who knowingly performed the ceremonies anyway would be abetting the act.

  12. Solemnizing

    Oh yeah. That is definitely the word of the day. Use it three times and it’s yours forever, as in:

    When I see how many other relationships have corroded, I’m glad we paid extra for solemnizing ours.

  13. Solemnizing. As in, to make something solemn. In other words, to change something so that it is less fun, less giddy, less casual, and make it more formal, grimmer, or more serious.

    That sounds about right, actually.

  14. Replying to Shannon Love:

    Civil disobedience which results in a law looking so silly that no one dares enforce it is no mere “personal vanity”; it’s just as effective, and sometimes more so, in killing bad laws in practice. Example:

    Jesus Christ is really the devil.

    I wrote the above sentence in Massachusetts, so I am now guilty of violating the state’s blasphemy law. But there is zero chance of my being prosecuted under it, because any attempt to prosecute it would be laughed out of court even before the ACLU could come to my defense. The law has been disobeyed so many times that it’s been de facto repealed without being de jure repealed.

  15. garym, etc.,

    Thanks for the support. 🙂

  16. What’s funny is how this has the potential to turn the talking points of the religious bigots in this matter on their heads; to wit, one of the talkiest talking points has been that legalizing gay marriage will somehow force churches to perform and recognize marriages that they consider sinful.

    And yet the first time a church enters the picture in a decidedly public and relevant manner, it’s a case of the government trying to force a church not to recognize something it doesn’t consider sinful.

  17. This reminds me: once in awhile I’ll watch a “Law and Order” rerun, and there was this one episode where a black cop was saying “I think it’s wrong to arrest drug users, but it’s the law and we have to enforce it.”

    I wish that television, and the Law and Order franchise, existed back in 1850. Imagine what a great episode that could have been: “I think it’s wrong to send runaway slaves back to their abusive masters, but it’s the law and we have to enforce it.”

    I wonder if the cops who actually arrested these ministers had the good grace to feel embarrassment?

  18. We were just following orders.

  19. Just out of curiousity, do Unitarians still have a belief in God as one of the planks in their platform?

  20. I wish that television, and the Law and Order franchise, existed back in 1850. Imagine what a great episode that could have been: “I think it’s wrong to send runaway slaves back to their abusive masters, but it’s the law and we have to enforce it.”

    Ironically, your “I know what’s right, it doesn’t matter what the law says” attitude could come straight from KKK literature, or from the mouth of a lynch mob member.

  21. Dan-
    Yes, of course what I said can be used to justify evil. What can’t?

  22. Shultz,

    Depends on the Unitarian; Unitarian-Universalst (UUs) churches have sizeable numbers of atheists who are members for examples; and the theism practiced at a UU church need not be a belive in Christ.

  23. Jean Bart,

    So it’s kind of like being a Republican!

  24. Dan: Right on! Any act can be clothed in civil disobedience, like any of the sacred institutions nobody listed earlier. Gandhi, King, and Mandela were all criminals. Although it is widely agreed that they were morally “right”, and they achieved wonderful outcomes, they were still criminal in their process. That is an essential step, as Shannon remarked, in achieving a de jure change via the civil disobedience model.

    It seems that if we are to subject each other to some lawful structure of society, that law must be applied uniformly. Prosecutorial discrection is a huge power applied with little oversight. A de facto repeal doesn’t make blasphemy non-criminal, and some prosecutor could use that charge as a lever in a personal or career-motivated vendetta. Did the Texas vibrator lady expect prosecution?

    I started this thread pointing out that the world is not my libertarian utopia. I would prefer the state be unconcerned with vibrators, marijuana, and marriage. Since it ain’t that way, the first respectful avenue is to pursue a change of law through the system. That’s what Bush is doing with his ridiculous FMA.

    It seems reasonable to me that if ministers and mayors can disregard the law, I must be comparably allowed to disobey tax law that finances what I see as an unecessary government function. And all of us then must be allowed to disregard any law which contradicts our preferred lifestyle.

    Keep throwing the barbs. I stoked the ovens at Auschwitz and would have lynched Frederic Douglass, if that makes you feel more righteous.

  25. Shultz,

    I’ve been to a few UU churches in the U.S.; they are bastions Deanna Troi psycho-babble. 🙂

  26. Jean Bart,

    You fail to recognize that the rule of law restrains the power of government more than it restrains the liberties of citizens. Political power is in the end the ability to make decisions. The more decisions one’s makes the more power one has. Granting government officials the moral right to selectively enforce laws based on their own conscience makes them more powerful relative to the people.

  27. Yes, of course what I said can be used to justify evil. What can’t?

    Perhaps you should have thought of that question before implying that everyone who thinks obedience to the law is a good idea would also have been in favor of shipping slaves back to their owners?

  28. Dan-
    No, in context I was specifically referring to the irony of a black cop who won’t concede that law can be more evil than those who break it. Where did you get the idea that I said all law-abiding people side with slave owners?

  29. Shannon,

    I don’t fail to recognize anything.

    “Granting government officials the moral right to selectively enforce laws based on their own conscience makes them more powerful relative to the people.”

    You fail to recognize that your argument is a double-edged sword.

  30. No, in context I was specifically referring to the irony of a black cop who won’t concede that law can be more evil than those who break it.

    No, you weren’t. You were referring to a cop who believed in enforcing even those laws which he thought were wrong. “Evil” never entered into it.

    Where did you get the idea that I said all law-abiding people side with slave owners?

    Because you immediately leapt to the particularly fuckwitted assertion that the 1850s parallel would be to support shipping slaves back to their owners.

    Did you even *have* a fucking point, by the way?

  31. Dan-
    My original point was that I wondered if the cops who arrested those marriage-performing Unitarian thugs had the decency to be embarrassed about it. I was also attempting, albeit in an oblique way, to suggest that it might not always be a good idea to assume that THE LAW is always right. Did you ever read ‘Civil Disobedience?’ Not that I’m a fan of the original Thoreau, but he did make some good points here and there.

  32. It’s one thing to break an unjust law in cases of life, death, and the like — eg hiding Jews in Nazi Germany, harboring runaway slaves in 1850s US. It’s quite another to do so in order to give same-sex couples a piece of paper with minor benefits. Would anyone here be against prosecuting NAMBLA members who had sex with 10-year-old boys in an act of “civil disobedience”?

    Here’s an idea. Work to change the laws you think are unjust. If the laws are not causing people to be killed, maimed, raped, or enslaved, obey them in the mean time.

  33. Crimethink–
    In the meantime, is it okay for me to wonder if it embarrasses cops to arrest ministers who marry gay couples?

  34. Wait a minute… can’t sea captains perform marriages? Right? Why not charter a ship full of gay people, sail to international waters, and marry them?

  35. In my libertarian fantasy, the state rightly would be disinterested. It ain’t that way here and now. Those who willfully and publicly disregard the law, and possibly misrepresent their power to the uninformed, are proper subjects for prosecution.

  36. I believe the first big gay marriage case in Canada was based on a charge of religious discrimination, made by mainline Protestant (Episcopal?) ministers who claimed that the government’s refusal to recognize the marriages they performed was discrimination against their religion.

  37. Mark Fox,

    You would have fit in well in the segregationist U.S. South; or Vichy France; or Stalinist Russia; or British India.

  38. What’s humorous is that the prosecutions will only highlight their cause.

  39. In the town I grew up in there was a murder– the first in 50 years. The relevant laws were not a nullity because there had not been a need to enforce them in a generation. I don’t know when was the last time any law enforcement officials in New York had to proceed against a church for performing an “unauthorised” wedding (based on a spurious license), but certainly there is a need to do so, if New York is going to regulate marrige by licensing at all.

  40. Um, didn’t they get the memo? We have more important things to worry about right now.

  41. Andrew: Why is there a need? All that’s necessary is not to recognize the marriage as having any official status.

  42. I wonder if the people who demand that the government suddenly start enforcing all the laws on its books have ever bothered to think about what would happen if it did. Laws have never been fully enforced and never can be in a society that overlegislates.

    We can start with the most obvious: The highways clogged as the police (using some hitherto unknown technology) pull over every driver doing 56 MPH in a 55 mile per hour zone and have them all fined.

    From there we can proceed to enforcing all the blue laws which have never been repealed (such as the Massachusetts blasphemy law I cited above). Sure, most of them will be found unconsitutional the moment they’re challenged, but the premise is that the government has an obligation to enforce these laws until they’re repealed or struck down.

    We also have to add all the petty violations of the law which police are now handling more effectively by warning people rather than arresting them. It’s the obligation of the police (so it is being claimed) to enforce the law.

    Perhaps the people calling for full enforcement believe that it would lead to a quick revolution, and thus would result in good being done. But the government is just as aware of that as we are. Therefore it won’t heed such a call. Expecting it to is as “utopian” as expecting a repeal of all unjust laws.

    The question to my mind is why these people have suddenly, in the context of this case, come up with the notion of completely changing the way law enforcement works so that these ministers can be arrested.

  43. garym: My desire for equal enforcement is not sudden. This case serves to stimulate my frustration. Perhaps, if marrying same-sexers becomes legal, but still distasteful to a cop, prosecutor, or inspector, we’ll see the unitarians charged with health- or fire-code violations, or it will be discovered that they never filed some form required by an 18th-century law which has be ignored since the time of gas lamps, but never repealed de jure.

    The US constitution has been amended to require some state powers be applied equally, without regard to certain race, gender, and income classifications. It would be nifty, although temporarily chaotic and hilarious as you describe, to see that notion fully extended across all powers and all categories.

    It seems those that harbored slaves and Jews were not engaged in civil disobedience. They were not making a public protest in an effort to see bad law changed, but making a private sacrifice to see human lives preserved.

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