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The Bangor Daily News just reported that enough signatures have been collected to put Maine's new Gay Marriage law up to a People's referendum.

Reading the discussion, I am frustrated by those who keep declaring that marriage has always been a religious institution between one man and one woman. This assertion shows an appalling lack of knowledge about history. Aside the fact that nearly all the marriages mentioned in the Bible are polygamous, the idea of marriage as a religious institution is pretty darn recent.

Marriage was first a secular non-religious legal arrangement. In the early middle ages, it was often performed in the public square, so a large number of (often illiterate) people could be legal witnesses to the marriage. Then, after the marriage, those who were rich enough went into the nearby church for a blessing. The Pope got the idea that if the Church took over the marriage ceremony itself, it could consolidate its control of the people. So they made marriage a sacrament.

The early Protestants rejected this. Martin Luther declared marriage to be "a worldly thing . . . that belongs to the realm of government". Calvin said something similar. The Pope, at the Council of Trent in 1563, responded by demanding that all marriages take place before a priest and two witnesses. Fighting this takeover of marriage by the Catholic Church, the English Puritans passed an Act of Parliament, asserting "marriage to be no sacrament" and made marriage purely secular.

America was founded against this background, which is why we have civil marriages performed by a JP.  But meanwhile, non-Catholic churches saw the power to be gained by taking over control of marriage, and encouraged confusion of civil versus religious marriage in the minds of their parishioners. Ignorant of history, many people have embraced this confusion and now hold marriage to be only a religious institution.

This has been done before, in other countries and other times. One logical result is that people who did not adhere to the state religion could not get married. Atheists could be denied the right to marry; President Bush II actually expressed that opinion once. And others whose religion does not fit the recognized Christian pattern (Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism) could likewise be denied the right to marry.

Before you say that non-Christians losing the right to marry is ludicrous -

Having marriages not recognized is part of Quaker history. The Anglican church did not recognize Quaker marriages, and so on several occasions women were convicted of the crime of living with their husbands - that is to say, of loose morals (since their marriage was not recognized). This back-door approach to religious discrimination is the reason that the NH Constitution, in discussing marriage, says that marriages may be conducted by a secular JP, by a Christian minister or priest, by a Rabbi, or by Quakers according to the process customary amongst them. It's interesting that so many religions are left out of that list; currently, the law is being rewritten to allow minister figures of any religion to officiate. But as it stands, the state does not officially recognize an Islamic or Hindu religious marriage.

I was in an argument recently with someone who saw a danger in recognizing gay marriage; namely, that churches would then be compelled to perform marriages which conflicted with their morals, or run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.  He seemed to have a real fear of this. His main argument was that he had heard that goal expressed by some outspoken gay friends. While he admitted the viewpoint was extremist, he said extremists have taken control of platforms before.

The idea that churches would be compelled to marry gays (or indeed anyone) is far more ludicrous than the possibility that atheist woulds be denied the right to marry. 

Right now, if a Lutheran couple demanded to be married by a Catholic priest, they would be laughed at. Nor could they turn to the local Rabbi, nor (probably) to the local Baptist minister. A Unitarian minister, on the other hand, would probably acquiesce. The point is that it is entirely determined by the principles of the religious institution; the government has no say in the matter. That's part of freedom of religion. Discrimination on the basis of religion (or gender, or race) IS constitutional if done within a religious context.

But an organization is not covered by that religious immunity just because it is run by a church. This is where 'faith-based initiatives' have run into trouble. A church can run a soup kitchen, but if they accept public funding and are found to discriminate against certain groups, they may lose the public funding. A church may be affiliated with a political action committee, but only a certain percentage of their budget can go to that political action, or the IRS may deem the organization to be not a church at all. To prevent that, the church need only separate the PAC financially from the church itself.

Note that churches are not required to register as 501c3 organizations; they are "automatically exempt". The only reason for pursuing such status is to gain certain privileges, such as bulk mailing permits, eligibility for grants, or employer tax exemptions. So, in a worst-case scenario, if a church were to be found guilty of discrimination, the church could not be "shut down"; at worst, it would lose the extra privileges that it gains not from being a church but from being a 501c3 organization.

No, when presented with the choice of making marriage adhere to a particular set of religious requirements, or extending the secular definition in a way some churches find abhorrent, I come down firmly on the side of extending the secular definition. Churches need not accept it; they need only accept that others do not agree with them. They cannot impose their morality on everyone else.

If churches want everyone to adhere to their morality, they are free to try to convert everyone. Then the law would be irrelevant. But using the law to impose their religious views is unconstitutional - and in my view, immoral.

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