Religious Conservatives Look to Get Out of the Civil Marriage Business


Dennis Bratland

Public support for same-sex marriage has grown rapidly over the past decade. The once fringe position is now held by a majority of Americans and fully 68 percent of millennials. Seeing the writing on the wall, some religious conservatives are now calling on Christian ministers to refuse to perform any state-sanctioned marriages. The Daily Caller reports:

Two Protestant pastors, concerned about rapidly-changing government definitions of marriage, have started a movement encouraging priests and ministers to refuse to perform civil marriages.

Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner, Episcopal and Anglican pastors respectively, launched "The Marriage Pledge" at the conservative religious journal First Things on Tuesday.

The pledge is unambiguous in calling for what amounts to a bright-line separation between religious and state-sanctioned marriage:

To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church's life. [emphasis added]

Some may view this as a last ditch attempt to oppose the tide of history, but libertarians ought to welcome it as a step toward the removal of government from private relationships.

Marriage, after all, is in essence a private contract between two individuals, and there is no reason why the government ought to be able to determine who is eligible to enter into that contract and who is not. Government involvement in marriage is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously, marriage was an institution of civil society that was dealt with under the common law. Even today, common law marriages—legally recognized unions between people who have not obtained a formal marriage license—continue to exist in a range of jurisdictions, including several U.S. states.

The effect of government involvement has been to politicize marriage. It has turned a celebrated institution into a political battleground by making its definition a zero sum game.

If we return marriage to civil society, individuals will be able to create their own marriage contracts, and religious organizations will be free to decide whose marriages they recognize and whose they do not. Same-sex couples will be free to get married and have their marriages recognized by any religious or civil society organization that agrees to do so. Likewise, opponents of same-sex marriage will not be forced to accept a definition they fundamentally disagree with.

America's founding fathers designed a system that includes the separation of church and state. They did this to protect religious freedom and avoid the sectarian clashes that had consumed much of Europe. The separation of marriage and state would have a similar effect, reducing political conflict and maximizing individual freedom. The Protestant pastors' marriage pledge is a step toward such separation, and it should be both celebrated and encouraged.