Modern Marriage Is Not Biblical

When an earlier president took a stand to provide access for a maligned minority to a public institution, a governor famously stood in the way to deny entrance.

Today's president has taken a stand to provide access for a maligned minority to a public institution, only to have clergy stand in the way.

It could be said that religious institutions have a constitutional right to deny membership, ministry, and marriage to anyone they deem unfit. But they do not have a right to impose their beliefs on the United States of America or any particular state of that union.

The claim is made that same-gender marriage is not biblical. Even though I'm a Christian, I do not want to return to biblical times. Slavery is biblical. Polygamy is biblical. Taking an eye for an eye is biblical. The subjugation of women is biblical. Stoning is biblical.

On the other hand, democracy is not biblical. A representative form of government is not biblical. A judiciary independent of a theocracy is not biblical.

For the first thousand years of church history, marriage was not recognized as a specifically Christian institution. During this period, marriages between Christians followed the Roman model that a couple married themselves, though they may have asked a blessing from their parish priest. Even when marriage was recognized as a sacrament in 1215 A.D., canon law followed the custom that the couple married themselves, the one sacrament that did not necessarily require a priest.

The Protestant Reformation, which did not view marriage as a sacrament, called on the developing nation-states of Europe to provide oversight of marriage as an institution. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on equality, came to full flower in the understanding of marriage as essentially a contract between the marriage partners, documented by Emory law and ethics professor John Witte, Jr., in his book "From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition."

When African-American slaves were not allowed to marry, they created their own rituals of commitment, such as "jumping the broom." In like manner, same-gender couples have created our own rituals of commitment, sometimes but not always church-related. In essence, we have followed the traditional understanding that marriage partners marry themselves.

Neither slaves nor gay people have needed religious approval to accomplish marriage, but it has been, ironically, within churches that slave marriages and now same-gender marriages often gained their first recognition, despite outspoken religious opposition, often on the lips of those who wish to impose their religious agenda on a secular society.

Access to public institutions, whether a school or marriage, should be the central issue of the marriage debate. Religious leaders may exercise their constitutional right to refuse access to their religious institutions and benefits, but no American citizen has the constitutional right to refuse same-gender couples access to the state institution of marriage.