05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Marriage -- Not Just a "Gay Rights" Issue

For years I have puzzled over the curious mix of civil and religious
traditions in the United States that currently require a clergyperson
to serve as both an agent of the state and a representative of her/his
religious tradition when presiding at a couple's marriage.

As current "religious" marriage ceremonies are conceived, it is almost
impossible to untangle the church and state. However, a careful,
historical reading of most "religious" ceremonies reveals which
elements are required in order to guarantee that both members of a
couple are coming of their own free will to enter into the legal
contract of marriage, and which elements are determined by the
particular faith community.

Separating the elements of civil and religious marriage, as the French
have done since 1792, might provide a way to solve the heated debate
over marriage that currently exists in many states. It would also
ensure the separation of church and state in this matter.

In this scenario, couples would first be married in a civil marriage
ceremony. This step would guarantee a couple's legal rights, whether
the couple was an opposite-sex couple or a same-sex couple. Following
the civil ceremony, should the couple choose and their tradition
permit, a religious marriage ceremony could be held.

This is not just a "gay rights" issue. The separation of civil and
religious ceremonies would also provide another alternative: those
persons who might lose benefits if they join in civil marriage could
choose to have only a religious ceremony to honor their union. Over
the years, I have heard time and time again from older couples that
this option would honor their marriages before God so that they would
no longer be living "in sin," yet at the same time it would protect
precious benefits that they would lose if they were legally married.

Separating civil and religious marriage is an idea whose time has come
in the United States -- by doing so, civil rights and benefits would
be preserved, and the traditions of religious communities would be

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