Marriage licenses, doing it wrong edition!
The Oklahoma House has passed a bill that would require all marriage licenses to be signed by clergy. This is a direct attack on separation of church and state: it effectively requires people who want legal benefits which are administered by the state to interact with religion. This is doing it backwards – we ought to be working on separating civil and religious marriage, not further conflating them.
Now it’s true that I fought for the right to sign marriage licenses in Virginia as a clergy person, and I would do so again. I did that as a stop gap, because it’s one of the ways “real” religions are recognized and because until we get to a better separation of civil and religious marriage people want their clergy to be able to do that. It’s unfortunate that the option of having a civil license signing is seen as a “lesser” option, but that’s part of the problem. However, even at the time I said that I didn’t think this was the way it should be, and that I advocated separating civil and religious marriage celebrations.
What’s really nasty about the bill in Oklahoma is that the originators say that they are concerned about protecting the delicate feelings of the public servants who have to do marriage licenses. Apparently the mere possibility of being confronted with two actual gay people is deeply disturbing to these public servants. In reality, this is a way to increase discrimination by pushing a public function off onto private individuals – clergy – who have a legal right to discriminate.
The spurious explanation makes this bill even more disgusting. As a clergywoman, as the wife of someone who served his country for many years, and as a regular citizen, I find that handwaving defense egregiously offensive to the very idea of civil society.
Public servants have to be prepared to put their personal scruples aside in a multitude of ways. That’s why it’s called public service – you have to serve the public, not just do what you want to do for the people you find acceptable.
I just went through the process of getting my Ohio driver’s license. The public servants who do that work have to deal with lots and lots of people from all walks of life. In the relatively short time I spent in those offices, I saw people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man with an offensive (to me) t-shirt and a woman wearing hijab. There were people who didn’t speak English and people who didn’t share my standards of personal hygiene. And all of them, every single one, deserves the exact same standard of consideration and service from those public servants.
And the folks in the driver’s license offices have a relatively straightforward job. If you choose to work in the court system, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are there especially because they’ve done something that society considers unacceptable – and I don’t just mean smoking pot or driving while black. You’re going to be dealing with felons and deadbeat parents and all kinds of people. Even if you only ever work in the marriage office you’re going to be dealing with people who are on their third or sixth marriage, you’re going to be dealing with some guy in his 70s marrying an 18 year old where you can’t tell who is taking advantage of whom, you’re going to be dealing with some guy who has been divorced by his previous two wives for violent abuse but has found another woman who is convinced that he’s changed, and so on and so forth, day in and day out.
If you go into public service, you get to serve the public. No exceptions. You don’t get to put your feelings or personal preferences into the judgment space. It’s your job to see that the paperwork is filled out correctly, that they’ve got supporting documentation, and that everything is above board and legal according to the laws as they are currently constituted. When those laws change, you change with them. If you want them changed, you go out there on your private time just like every other citizen and do what you can. But at work you take your feelings and you put them someplace else and you serve the public.
This bill is especially insidious because there is so much potential for collateral damage. How are atheists supposed to get married? How are Catholic divorcees supposed to get married? Yes, most people would be able to find a friendly UU minister or somebody similar, but why should they have to? In order to get the state-administered legal benefits of marriage, they should be able to go to the state, file paperwork, and get a signed license.
Deep down, I don’t think this bill is really about protecting public servants’ feelings. I think that is an excuse, and the lack of consideration for the collateral damage is one indication that the real motivation is simple bigotry. Whether or not this bill passes the Oklahoma Senate and is implemented, we will see many, many more attempts like it because this is the modern-day equivalent of the attempts to avoid desegregation by closing the public schools.
This bill is nothing less than an attack on the fundamentals of civil society. Our society is trying to evolve to afford more basic civility to all its members, and as that evolution takes hold, one of the only possible responses by the fundamentalists is to try to tear down civil society as a whole. We cannot allow that to happen; as more of these attempts occur, we need to recognize them for what they are, call them out, and stop them in their tracks.