“Legislating Love,” by Art Remillard
Not long ago, a friend asked me to conduct his marriage ceremony. “You have a Ph.D. in religion,” he argued, “and you have read the entire bible!” With such a strong line of reasoning, I had a difficult time formulating a counterargument. But I might not need to. Consider the following. In 2006, a couple living in central Pennsylvania had a “pagan” minister carry out their marriage ceremony. A judge has since declared their marriage invalid, noting that the minister was not legally viable since she had no congregation, which the state apparently uses as a standard to determine legitimacy. The minister also received her ordination online, a growing point of contention in Pennsylvania. Recently, some state legislators have proposed a bill that would deny legal recognition to Internet-ordained ministers. Remarked one proponent, ‘‘The institution of marriage as a model and foundation of our society is protected by law, and states have a strong interest in ensuring that marriages are valid in order to provide certainty that persons who enter into unions can rely on such legal protections.” The Universal Life Church, which specializes in Internet ordination, has offered objections to both this legislation and the court ruling. “It is our position,” a ULC representative declared, “that any infringement upon the rights of our ministers is an infringement on the protections of the First Amendment.”
What to make of this? We see the ULC’s appeal to civil religious piety, invoking the constitution’s mandate for religious freedom. And the subtle sounds of “family values” rhetoric emerge from the anti-Internet ordination individual, echoing arguments deployed in the gay marriage debate. Finally, I am reminded of David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes (I’ve mentioned the book in a previous post and reviewed it for the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture). Among the book’s many keen insights, Chidester discusses the problem of “adjudicating authenticity” when it comes to Internet religion. No doubt, groups like the ULC make it increasingly difficult to determine what is, and is not, a “real” religion. But even the marriage practices of commonly accepted denominations can raise questions. Recently, county officials in Pittsburgh denied a marriage license to a Quaker couple, claiming that their planned “self-uniting” ceremony would not meet the state’s standards. A federal judge soon overruled the decision. Despite the favorable outcome, notice the painful irony that a Quaker marriage practice became legally questionable in the very state established by a Quaker.
All of this leads me to wonder: Will the day ever come when we decide that governments should focus on tasks like building roads and repairing bridges, rather than trying to determine who can properly dispense wedding vows? Who knows? In the meantime, I need to figure out how to get ordained quickly—my friend’s wedding is near…