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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Need a Minister For Your Marriage?

The first step to solving this conundrum is to unpack the different components of religion. In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

-- Does Religion Make You Nice? Does atheism make you mean?
I originally quoted that in a a discussion on the meaning of "religion," which is one of those things that I think are defined too narrowly by many, along with words like "morals" or "value voters."*  The discussion includes a comment about Unitarian Universalism, which is defined by the cited source as "not an atheist movement, but a religious movement into which some atheists may comfortably fit."  Looking at the website of the UU church in my city, I found this interesting sermon that included a citation of the actress Mayim Bialik, an impressive role model.  She even manages to (in "Operation Hot and Holy") find a proper dress for the Emmys that matches her religious faith.

The sermon also speaks about current events:
Although participants might disagree, I see Occupy Wall Street as a fundamentally religious movement in that it’s struggling to embody the beloved community – asserting a vision of the world as it should be in the very midst of the world as it is.
The whole thing is interesting reading.  [Just heard Andy Rooney has died. Impressive career, not just as a curmudgeon.]  The church also joined a brief on the "ministerial exemption" case pending in front of the USSC.  Some might think UU is not a "religion" or would not be satisfied since its views are so diverse that it seems more like the United Nations of Religion than one faith.  It appeals to me.

Another organization, one that even some of its members don't treat as a "religion," is the New York Society Of Ethical Culture. NY state law expressly allows leaders of that society to preside over marriages. [The Texas case cited by the previous link is interesting and cites a broad based definition of religion that I have for some time found useful. The "report" on the ruling also is a telling discussion that mirrors some sentiments addressed here.]  The society to me is not merely "ethical" in nature, but has various aspects that would traditionally be deemed "religious." To cite the Wikipedia entry linked above:
Ethical Societies typically have Sunday morning meetings, offer moral instruction for children and teens, and do charitable work and social action. They may offer a variety of educational and other programs. They conduct weddings, commitment ceremonies, baby namings, and memorial services.

The footnote below cites case law back to the 1950s that confirms such an argument. The Universal Life Church is a more tricky case (though it does not merely involve a freestanding believer, who has been protected, but an actual church, one with ceremonies and leadership) and an upcoming article will cover the NY situation in particular. The church has a basic creed:
"Do only that which is right".

Every person has the natural right (and the responsibility) to peacefully determine what is right. We are advocates of religious freedom.

The Universal Life Church wants you to pursue your spiritual beliefs without interference from any outside agency, including government or church authority.
Since each person has such a right, under the church's philosophy, each can become a minister, one that, yes, many places will let solemnize weddings. This has shades of Quakerism. Conan O'Brien just presided over a same sex marriage of a staffer, noting that he did so under the authority of being a minister of this church.  More about the religion can be found here.  Again, some may not take this seriously, more so than the others.  But, is "religion" about some organized church or can it be a community of believers as a whole?  And, who decides who they are?  If there is not a proper gatekeeper (who decides?), does it not count?  Many do believe that they themselves have to determine the meaning of their faith and/or religion.  This so even if they are members of a church, sometimes one that can be rather hierarchical or touchy about doctrine.

As to the marriage thing, the important thing (for official purposes) is the state license. I'm not sure -- as long as there is a witness -- who "presides" over it. It is fact probably misguided on First Amendment grounds to favor certain "real" religions in this respect.

[The lack of complexity of doctrine is not too convincing and who wants to go there?  The lack of exclusivity of clergy is duly noted, but again, who cares?  They are merely witnesses ... for legal purposes.  Does it make you feel better if clergy from the Church of Satan do the honors? And, a religion can reject hierarchical lines -- it seems a dubious 1A matter to disfavor them, again when the real issue is a valid license.

Yes, legislators probably didn't have this sort of thing in mind, but they are not always able to know what is ahead and to the extent they could, it seems like religious favoritism to deny ULC ministers the right to preside.  Maybe, a required class or some such thing for all who wish to preside might be a good idea anyways.  Is it really so notable that a religious body with the suitable complexity and hierarchy selected the person who presides?  Many do not trust many religions overall.]

[A bit more: See this article for a discussion on internet ministers.

Looking at a few cases, the concern is sometimes raised that the religious presiding officiant is someone chosen with a certain amount of care, since they "sanctify" the proceedings and perhaps they might have certain obligations (like signing and returning the certificate).  The latter is better done by a test or providing instructions to the person, the former boils down to the people involved.  If the ULC or some other church matches their faith and/or beliefs, it "sanctifies" things. Depriving people of free exercise of religion here seems downright petty.

A notary in NY has the power to serve as a witness to oaths and affirmations, pursuant to passing a test and paying a fee.  This might not involve marriage, though it can involve a lot of important things, including public officials being sworn in.  The confusion over marriages here is silly. See also, here, as to online "congregations" and the issue of penitent privilege, which if we do allow, might very well be different, given the lack of witnesses, it not merely being a follow-up to a civil procedure (license) and the importance of testimony in a court of law.]


* The original footnote (slightly edited):

Religious freedom would include making choices regarding God and not favoring those that choose to model morality and such on God, but matters of conscience are probably also a necessary aspect ("penumbra" if you like) even if seen as a freestanding matter. As Justice Douglas (in a dissenting opinion also making the equal protection point) once noted:
It is true that the First Amendment speaks of the free exercise of religion, not of the free exercise of conscience or belief. Yet conscience and belief are the main ingredients of First Amendment rights. They are the bedrock of free speech as well as religion. The implied First Amendment right of "conscience" is certainly as high as the "right of association" which we recognized. Some indeed have thought it higher. Conscience is often the echo of religious faith. But, as this case illustrates, it may also be the product of travail, meditation, or sudden revelation related to a moral comprehension of the dimensions of a problem, not to a religion in the ordinary sense.
Citations omitted. On that general subject, many would agree that certain positions are not "secular," putting aside the fact that they do not necessarily rise or fall on the existence of God. And, there are "non-theistic" religions out there. The lower court rulings cited by that footnote provide useful open-ended meanings to "religion."