Marriage Equality and Religion: Frequently Asked Questions
What is marriage?
It depends. The definition of marriage has always varied depending on the religious, cultural and political circumstances of a particular society. In some contexts, marriage is a covenant of love; in others it involves primarily a legal arrangement ensuring property inheritance rights. It is often a complex mixture of both.
Hasn’t marriage always been between one man and one woman?
No, it has not. In many cultures, both ancient and modern, polygamy has been quite common, which describes the relationship of one husband with multiple wives. This was, in fact, the predominant pattern of human family in ancient Israelite and other near-Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.
What is marriage in the United States?
This depends on the individual states. Each state has the right to define and regulate what constitutes a legal marriage in this country. Regardless of which state one considers, the history of marriage in the United States exhibits a dual nature we still see today, which includes a complex mix of both legal contracts and religious covenants. Ordained clergy, for example, function as duly authorized agents of the state when they sign marriage licenses after performing religious ceremonies, yet couples do not necessarily need to be married in a religious ceremony for their marriage to be legally recognized.
Why is marriage considered a civil contract?
In this country and many other countries, marriage primarily constitutes a legal agreement between two people that is confirmed and validated by state-designated officials. Regardless of what religious rites a couple may participate in, they are only legally married if they can obtain a properly registered state license. Moreover, a couple who obtain a validated license from a state-designated official are married whether or not they chose to participate in any religious rites at all.
Why is marriage a political issue?
Marriage is a political issue because the civil contract of marriage extends over 1,000 federal benefits to married couples from which lesbian and gay couples are currently excluded. That makes marriage not only a political issue, but an issue of social justice as well.
Have states ever restricted civil marriage in the past?
Yes. States have the right to regulate who can obtain marriage licenses and these regulations vary from state to state. For example, while some states allow first cousins to marry, others do not. Likewise, until relatively recently, some states did not allow couples of “mixed races” to marry. Laws forbidding this practice—known as miscegenation—changed only through the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
Doesn’t our government have a responsibility to protect the sanctity of marriage?
No. What constitutes something as “sacred” is the exclusive realm of religious tradition and communities of faith. The government’s sole responsibility in this arena is to ensure just and equal protection under the law for every American citizen. That’s why the U.S. Constitution insists on the separation of “church and state.”
Is marriage a religious sacrament?
Only for some religious communities. Within Christianity, marriage became a “sacrament” only in the early 12th century. Moreover, not every religious community or Christian denomination considers marriage a sacrament today. Those that do include: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and some branches of the Anglican Communion.
Do ministers “marry” people?
No. In both Catholic and some Protestant traditions, the ordained minister is not the one who “marries” the couple; the two partners are themselves the ministers of the rite and the ordained clergy functions only as a witness to the couple’s vows of commitment. The Christian tradition has various views of who does the actual “marrying”: it can be the couple themselves, God, or the community as a whole, but it is never the minister.
Can same-sex couples currently get “married”?
Yes and no. Same-sex couples may currently participate in religious rites of “marriage” in a number of faith traditions, including both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Christian denominations of the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Churches, some Disciples of Christ (Christian), some Episcopal churches, and some Baptist churches. However, because the state will not currently issue a civil license to these couples, they are not legally “married” as far as civil rights and federal benefits are concerned.
What effect will civil marriage equality have on religious celebrations of marriage?
Absolutely none. By extending marriage equality to lesbian and gay couples, the State will not nor can it say anything at all about whether a religious community chooses to bless same-sex couples with liturgical rites. Religious communities can choose to offer liturgical blessings of same-sex couples or not; the state has nothing to do with those decisions.
Doesn’t the Bible support marriage as a union between one man and one woman?
Not really. The primary familial pattern in the Hebrew Scriptures is polygamy—one husband with multiple wives. The sexual ideal in the Christian Scriptures is chastity and celibacy. Jesus was even critical of the institution of marriage, suggesting that those who wished to be worthy of the resurrection “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35).
But doesn’t the Apostle Paul endorse marriage?
Not quite. Paul affirms that marriage is not a sin, but stops short of endorsing marriage as a laudable choice. Paul never says marriage is for the sake of children, or for pleasure, or even for companionship. For Paul, the only reason to marry is to provide a remedy for lust and encourages his readers to remain as he is, presumably unmarried.
Hasn’t Christianity always supported the importance of marriage?
No, it has not. Unlike the positive regard in which marriage was generally held in the “pagan” Greek and Roman cultures in which Christianity developed, early Christianity itself demoted the institution of marriage in favor of celibacy. It is only in the medieval world and especially in the development of Protestant Christianity during the 16th century that marriage was re-constituted as an important Christian institution.
Should religious communities support the right to marry in this country?
Yes. The right to civil marriage in the United States has absolutely nothing to do with the religious and spiritual meaning of marriage. It does have everything to do with social justice. Religious leaders and communities have been on the forefront of every movement for social change in this country; the freedom to marry should be no different.
What are the legal and economic benefits of marriage?
You can read the report from the General Accounting Office of the United States online [PDF]. This includes information on “1049 federal laws classified to the United States Code in which marital status is a factor.”
History of Marriage: 13 Surprising Facts
By Tia Ghose, Staff Writer | June 26, 2013 04:26pm ET
Moonstruck partners pledging eternal love may be the current definition of marriage, but this starry-eyed picture has relatively modern origins.
Though marriage has ancient roots, until recently love had little to do with it.
“What marriage had in common was that it really was not about the relationship between the man and the woman,” said Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” (Penguin Books, 2006). “It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.”
But as family plots of land gave way to market economies and Kings ceded power to democracies, the notion of marriage transformed. Now, most Americans see marriage as a bond between equals that’s all about love and companionship. [I Don’t: 5 Myths About Marriage]
That changing definition has paved the way for same-sex marriage and Wednesday’s (June 26) Supreme Court rulings, which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and dismissed a case concerning Proposition 8.
From polygamy to same-sex marriage, here are 13 milestones in the history of marriage.
1. Arranged alliances
Marriage is a truly ancient institution that predates recorded history. But early marriage was seen as a strategic alliance between families, with the youngsters often having no say in the matter. In some cultures, parents even married one child to the spirit of a deceased child in order to strengthen familial bonds, Coontz said.
2. Family ties
Keeping alliances within the family was also quite common. In the Bible, the forefathers Isaac and Jacob married cousins and Abraham married his half-sister. Cousin marriages remain common throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East. In fact, Rutgers anthropologist Robin Fox has estimated that the majority of all marriages throughout history were between first and second cousins.
3. Polygamy preferred
Monogamy may seem central to marriage now, but in fact, polygamy was common throughout history. From Jacob, to Kings David and Solomon, Biblical men often had anywhere from two to thousands of wives. (Of course, though polygamy may have been an ideal that high-status men aspired to, for purely mathematical reasons most men likely had at most one wife). In a few cultures, one woman married multiple men, and there have even been some rare instances of group marriages. [Life’s Extremes: Monogamy vs. Polygamy]
4. Babies optional
In many early cultures, men could dissolve a marriage or take another wife if a woman was infertile. However, the early Christian church was a trailblazer in arguing that marriage was not contingent on producing offspring.
“The early Christian church held the position that if you can procreate you must not refuse to procreate. But they always took the position that they would annul a marriage if a man could not have sex with his wife, but not if they could not conceive,” Coontz told LiveScience.
5. Monogamy established
Monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries, Coontz said.
“There was a protracted battle between the Catholic Church and the old nobility and kings who wanted to say ‘I can take a second wife,'” Coontz said.
The Church eventually prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the ninth century.
6. Monogamy lite
Still, monogamous marriage was very different from the modern conception of mutual fidelity. Though marriage was legally or sacramentally recognized between just one man and one woman, until the 19th century, men had wide latitude to engage in extramarital affairs, Coontz said. Any children resulting from those trysts, however, would be illegitimate, with no claim to the man’s inheritance.
“Men’s promiscuity was quite protected by the dual laws of legal monogamy but tolerance — basically enabling — of informal promiscuity,” Coontz said.
Women caught stepping out, by contrast, faced serious risk and censure.
7. State or church?
Marriages in the West were originally contracts between the families of two partners, with the Catholic Church and the state staying out of it. In 1215, the Catholic Church decreed that partners had to publicly post banns, or notices of an impending marriage in a local parish, to cut down on the frequency of invalid marriages (the Church eliminated that requirement in the 1980s). Still, until the 1500s, the Church accepted a couple’s word that they had exchanged marriage vows, with no witnesses or corroborating evidence needed.
8. Civil marriage
In the last several hundred years, the state has played a greater role in marriage. For instance, Massachusetts began requiring marriage licenses in 1639, and by the 19th-century marriage licenses were common in the United States.
9. Love matches
By about 250 years ago, the notion of love matches gained traction, Coontz said, meaning marriage was based on love and possibly sexual desire. But mutual attraction in marriage wasn’t important until about a century ago. In fact, in Victorian England, many held that women didn’t have strong sexual urges at all, Coontz said.
10. Market economics
Around the world, family-arranged alliances have gradually given way to love matches, and a transition from an agricultural to a market economy plays a big role in that transition, Coontz said.
Parents historically controlled access to inheritance of agricultural land. But with the spread of a market economy, “it’s less important for people to have permission of their parents to wait to give them an inheritance or to work on their parents’ land,” Coontz said. “So it’s more possible for young people to say, ‘heck, I’m going to marry who I want.'”
Modern markets also allow women to play a greater economic role, which lead to their greater independence. And the expansion of democracy, with its emphasis on liberty and individual choice, may also have stacked the deck for love matches.
11. Different spheres
Still, marriage wasn’t about equality until about 50 years ago. At that time, women and men had unique rights and responsibilities within marriage. For instance, in the United States, marital rape was legal in many states until the 1970s, and women often could not open credit cards in their own names, Coontz said. Women were entitled to support from their husbands, but didn’t have the right to decide on the distribution of community property. And if a wife was injured or killed, a man could sue the responsible party for depriving him of “services around the home,” whereas women didn’t have the same option, Coontz said.
12. Partnership of equals
By about 50 years ago, the notion that men and women had identical obligations within marriage began to take root. Instead of being about unique, gender-based roles, most partners conceived of their unions in terms of flexible divisions of labor, companionship, and mutual sexual attraction.
13. Gay marriage gains ground
Changes in straight marriage paved the way for gay marriage. Once marriage was not legally based on complementary, gender-based roles, gay marriage seemed like a logical next step.
“One of the reasons for the stunningly rapid increase in acceptance of same sex marriage is because heterosexuals have completely changed their notion of what marriage is between a man and a woman,” Coontz said. “We now believe it is based on love, mutual sexual attraction, equality and a flexible division of labor.”
Follow Tia Ghose on Twitterand Google+. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.