On Religion

Sacraments vs. State Marriage Licenses

Father Patrick Henry Reardon's note to his flock at Chicago's All Saints Orthodox Church was short and simple -- yet a sign of how complicated life is becoming for traditional religious believers.



"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor's office, has now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago," he wrote in the parish newsletter.


 The key words were "or signed." The veteran priest was convinced that he faced a collision between an ancient sacrament and new political realities that define a civil contract. His goal, he said, was not to "put my people in a tough spot," but to stress that believers now face complications when they get married -- period.



The question priests must ask, when signing marriage licenses, is "whether or not you're acting on behalf of the state when you perform that rite. It's clear as hell to me that this is what a priest is doing," said Reardon, reached by telephone.



"Lay people don't face the sacramental question like a priest. They are trying to obtain the same civil contract and benefits as anyone else and they have to get that from the state. It's two different moral questions."



 This is a timely question, as the U.S. Supreme Court nears a crossroads on same-sex marriage. The issue of whether clergy should clip this tie to the state is one that is causing tensions -- not just between doctrinal liberals and conservatives, but also between those with differing views of the theology of marriage and approaches to current political realities.



In a recent LifeWay Research survey, 6 in 10 Americans disagreed with the statement that "marriage should be defined and regulated by the state" and 49 percent agreed that "religious weddings should not be connected to the state's definition and recognition of marriage." However, 71 percent of pastors disagreed with the statement, "Clergy should no longer be involved in the state's licensing of marriage."



At the conservative journal First Things, 444 clergy and lay leaders had, as of earlier this week, signed "The Marriage Pledge," promising: "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."



 These debates are about "strategy and timing, not ... faithfulness," stressed evangelical activist John Stonestreet, writing at BreakPoint.org. Clergy will know it's time to exit the "civil marriage business" when they are forced out.


"Stay in the game! ... Refuse to render to Caesar authority that does not belong to him," Stonestreet argued. "Get censured! Get sued! Be nice and kind, but firm; keep the witness as long as you can."



 The Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently wrote that any church that embraces the sexual revolution is "no longer a church of Jesus Christ." Yet a pastor who signs a marriage license is "not affirming the state's definition of marriage," he argued, but bearing witness to "the state's role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society."

This topic is sure to be discussed as clergy and activists gather in Washington, D.C. for the April 25 March for Marriage. Reardon noted that his church's national leader, while not directly addressing the marriage-license issue, sent a pastoral letter to his bishops, clergy and laypeople noting that marriage debates cannot be avoided.

The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman ... or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."



At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. ... I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."



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