June 18, 2018
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Maine should ‘divorce’ legal, ceremonial aspects of marriage

By Larry Dansinger, Special to the BDN

The voters of Maine have spoken, and same-sex marriage will soon be legal in the state.

There are undoubtedly those in the voting minority who feel their religious or cultural beliefs are harmed by the referendum result. Those in the voting majority may also feel hurt because their basic civil rights are still being questioned. How do we bridge this clash of values between civil rights and religious or moral beliefs?

Before and during the same-sex marriage referendum campaign, others, and I, began advocating a separation between the legal recognition of a relationship between a loving couple and the celebratory observance. I believe Maine should now, as a result of this election, “divorce” the civil rights of couples from the celebrations, religious or otherwise, of their relationship.

Examples of these civil rights, previously available to married couples but not domestic partners, included tax and other financial advantages, transfers and inheritance of property, court testimony, child custody and health care and survivor benefits. These and all other rights will now be available to any legally married couple.

Currently, the legal knot between a couple can be tied by a notary public, a lawyer, a judge or an ordained member of the clergy in Maine. (It can also be performed with a temporary authorization by someone who is not a Maine resident). I believe the state of Maine could, and should, determine that the civil and legal rights of couples ought to be conferred only by a notary public, a lawyer or a judge. This could be called a “civil union” or “marriage” or any term the state chooses to give it.

The sanctification, celebration or confirmation of the relationship, with no legal aspects to it, could be performed by an ordained clergy member, or any other person chosen by the couple. This could be called a “wedding” or “commitment ceremony” or “marriage” or whatever term the public and participants give to that event. Couples would not need to go through this second ceremony to gain all the legal rights that any couple currently “married” now has.

While this separation doesn’t resolve all differences of viewpoints, it does more easily allow those with opposite views to maintain their own beliefs about what we now call “marriage.” Those who want equal rights and treatment will get it through the legal ceremony; those who want to maintain their own religious and cultural ideas of what “marriage” means to them will have it through their “commitment” or “wedding” ceremony.

This redefinition of who can perform “marriages” creates a clearer separation between church and government, which has been a cornerstone of our political system for centuries. That blurred line has been a major part of the conflict surrounding marriage, since those with religious beliefs against same-sex marriage have opposed it, in part, because they see marriage as both a religious and legal institution.

This separation would clarify what the government’s role should be — ensuring that certain classes of people are guaranteed their legal rights — and where it shouldn’t have a role — in how couples celebrate their relationship.

With this “divorce” of civil rights from ceremony, religion wouldn’t have to worry as much about government telling it how to perform weddings, and same-sex marriage advocates wouldn’t have to be as concerned with religion trying to define loving relationships in a way that denies some couples their legal rights.

The 2013 Maine Legislature could accomplish this “divorce” by altering those authorized “to solemnize marriages” in Title 19-A of the Maine statutes. Currently, it includes justices or judges, lawyers who are admitted to the Maine Bar, notary publics, ordained clergy and nonresidents who obtain a “temporary registration certificate.”

By limiting the right to “solemnize” to only justices or judges, lawyers and notary publics, it would be clear that the ceremony was specifically for legal purposes. Couples could then celebrate and confirm their relationship in any way they chose — religiously or nonreligiously, with or without clergy, or not at all.

I hope the Maine Legislature will consider and pass this change in the 2013 session.

Larry Dansinger of Monroe is a community organizer and works on projects for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

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