The magnificent Board Administration Team at The Slacktiverse suggested “Unequal Rites” as the title for their cross-post of my story about being refused clergy status in Virginia. I’m going to borrow that title here to share just a little bit more personal reflection about why what seems like no big deal – the ability to sign marriage licenses – matters so much to me and, I think, to the Pagan community.
I had mixed feelings about getting the ability to sign marriage licenses because I don’t think that the government should require couples to get married by someone else, whether that person is clergy or a justice of the peace or whatever. I think that marriage or handfasting is a bond formed by the couple themselves; for the government’s purposes they should tell the government that they have formed – or dissolved – such a bond, but in my religious and personal understanding, the couple themselves are the ones responsible. They don’t need me to “marry” them. I don’t want to have any “power vested in me” by the State of Virginia.
But I do want to be able to help people meet the government requirements for this important event. Our society isn’t going to move in the direction I would prefer anytime soon, and in the meantime, people want to be married/handfasted, and they want government recognition of that status. This is an important life cycle event, and while some people will go the civil route, most people continue to expect the religious ceremony to grant them the legal status also.
I concluded that I would treat my role in “marrying” people as being a kind of court reporter: for its own reasons, which I disagree with, the government only allows certain people to sign marriage licenses. I decided that in applying for the right to sign marriage licenses, I was jumping through hoops in order to help people in the Pagan community meet government requirements. (As I noted in the previous piece, it’s also a vital part of being recognized by other institutions as “real” clergy, which is crucially important to me.)
And it’s also important, I think, that this is one of the things that forces people who might not otherwise participate actively in religion to interface with clergy. Like it or not, the civil ceremony is still seen as a less-desirable backup option, so getting married causes all sorts of people – spiritual but not religious, solitary practitioner, whatever – to seek out a clergy person with compatible beliefs and practices. By being such a clergy person, I can potentially serve a lot more people than are members of my Order, or my coven, or any other group.
The Supreme Court has ruled that we have a fundamental right to marry. (Loving v Virginia – yes, the same state of Virginia which I am currently struggling with!) We are slowly but surely moving towards extending marriage equality to people regardless of gender. But this is about more than the simple legal status of marriage; it’s also about how that status is conferred.
Pagans shouldn’t have to go to Christian clergy in order to be married. They shouldn’t have their religion denigrated by the government so that they have to go the “alternate route” of having a civil ceremony as well if they don’t want to.
Having our rights means having our rites.