Church and state intersecting in marriage debate

A clear majority of New Yorkers think that every New Yorker, including those who are gay or lesbian, should have the right to marry. You’ve all heard the joke that same sex couples should have the right to be as miserable as everyone else. In the end, New Yorkers heard from some religious people who believe that they, not the state, should have the right to make the rules. This is a debate heard around the world as the Taliban justifies whipping women who show too much skin or men who don’t grow their beards in the right way. The beauty of the United States Constitution and the wisdom of the framers is that they tried to separate the religious from the civil. The First Amendment was meant to take care of that. Governor Cuomo deserves huge respect for making that separation as his father did before him. He acknowledges that he is a practicing Catholic but that there is a division between the religious and the civil.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president, he knew he could not win without making that church vs. state distinction publicly as part of his campaign. The doctrine of any religion — Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, or Muslim — is accepted by those who choose to live under a set of rules, yet many people practice their religion as they see fit. Each of the major religious institutions has to live in a democratic society in which people can vote with their feet and leave if the religion doesn’t suit them. That’s how new religions are born, some of which are flourishing in this country. If the religious group doesn’t like what its members are doing, it can impose whatever disciplinary procedures it has at its disposal. If someone is excommunicated from a religion in this country, they can find another.

One out of every two marriages ends in divorce. Many of the people who have divorced choose to remarry. There are religions that only accept separation under some circumstances. Some of these religions have complicated rules, such as an annulment in Catholicism or a so-called get among orthodox Jews. That puts the power back in the hands of the religious authorities, if the congregants choose to accept the authority of those who would impose sanctions on them.

We are living in a time many people thought would never come — politicians of any faith can continue to be elected even though they have defied the instructions of their religious leaders. Some have been told that they can no longer be part of their church yet they continue to serve with very little discrimination at the polls against them. That, of course, is because so many others in the population do the same. Inter-marriage between religions is on the rise. In years past, some religions would insist that the couple sign an agreement about how children would be brought up. Now people are leaving. Religious schools in some faiths are closing; they are too expensive to maintain and run and not enough people are choosing them. That gives more power to the civil side of society.

We now see the intersection of the church and the state in the Legislature, where paid and unpaid lobbyists roam the halls warning people of the dire consequences of moving away from the wisdom of religion. The state gets to set the rules. Polygamy is forbidden by the civil side and at least one religion has changed its standards to satisfy the dictates of government.

One may choose not to like any of this but things have changed big time. People live together and presumably have sex outside of marriage. Some people marry people of other religions. No one gets arrested. No one gets stoned. The framers of the United States Constitution made decisions which affected things that they could not have foreseen or anticipated — or could they?

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/20/11

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