The state has a long history of involving itself in the spiritual practices of its citizens. The English Reformation, the time period with which I am the most familiar, is filled with such moments. For example, in 1536 Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, vicegerent in spirituals and vicar general of the newly created English Church, began to issue injunctions to the clergy of England. Among other things, they were to defend royal supremacy and abandon pilgrimages. His 1538 injunctions encouraged iconoclasm—the destruction of images of saints in sculpture or painting—prohibited the burning of candles for saints and for the dead, and required that an English copy of the Bible be put in every church for parishioners. The Elizabethan Act of Authority (1559) forbade the use of any prayer book but the approved Book of Common Prayer.
Indiana, at the moment, is having a reminder of precisely this sort of spiritual meddling by the state. According John Murray at the Indianapolis Star the laws that are causing the furor “generally address perjury on a marriage license application and attempts to perform marriages not allowed by law.” While the laws have been on the books in Indiana since 1997, at least, they are receiving renewed attention because of the contemporary legal debate over same sex marriage. My interest in the law is particularly focused on section 7, which states that a person who “knowingly solemnizes a marriage of individuals who are prohibited from marrying” can be hit with a 180-day jail sentence or $1,000 fine.
I realize that the main focus of the debate over same sex marriage is not about state intervention in religious matters. So why am I so interested? Because if my mom lived in Indiana she would be a felon.
Ordained by the Unitarian Universalist church in 1980, Mom performed same sex unions from the earliest years of her ministry, and so did nearly all of her colleagues. The same is true for many of Mom’s clerical colleagues of other faiths. Rabbis from the Reform Jewish movement have solemnized or blessed same sex unions for decades, as have ministers from a wide range of Christian traditions. Depending on how strictly one interprets the law’s use of the words “solemnized” and “marriage,” every one of those ceremonies could have been a felony. Every one of those religious leaders could have been a felon. For mom, and for the rabbi at the Temple I attend this is not a hypothetical concern. For the clergy members I grew up with and the ones I have met since this is a vital spiritual issue.
For many of these religious leaders, for many of those of us who are their congregants, the celebration of a marriage between people who love each other—bride and groom, bride and bride, or groom and groom—is part of our celebration of faith. We might pray to “the Ruler of the Universe, Who created joy and happiness… rejoicing, song, cheer and delight, love and humankind and peace and friendship.” Or we might ask that God “Grant that in the years ahead they may be faithful to the promises they make this day, and that in the strength of the Holy Spirit they may grow together in the love, joy, and peace of our Saviour Jesus Christ.” We might thank the “giver of life and love” for “all that binds us to one another; for all the common experiences which make us kin; for the needs which find their highest satisfactions in loving association with others.” Regardless of how the marriage is blessed and regardless of who is blessed, these ceremonies are serious acts of faith. We do not “tolerate” these unions. We celebrate them. Telling clergy members that they cannot enact them is an appalling intrusion into spiritual practices. It is the equivalent of telling people what words they may or may not use to pray, what direction they must face when praying, or how many times a day they must pray.
The opponents of same sex marriage spend a lot of time arguing that marriage is a religious institution, and that the state should not define it. But they seem cheerfully willing to wield the force of the state to enshrine a definition of marriage that comports with their own religious traditions, no matter how severely it violates the religious traditions of other, equally faithful, groups. Our traditions may not be your traditions, but they are no less the cornerstones of our houses of faith. And they deserve no lesser protection from the intrusions of the state.