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Mitchell: Churches Have Nothing to Fear from Same-Gender Ruling

Faced with racially integrating their swimming pools in the 1960s, many Mississippi cities locked the gates.

Some mayors trumped up excuses, such as a need for serious maintenance. Others admitted the obvious. In any event, there was no way they were going to succumb to dictates that blacks and whites be allowed to occupy the same water.

Their ace, of course, was that no law, state or federal, required that public pools be built or operated. So cities and towns simply got out of the pool business. Many have since built new pools, but they didn’t have to.

Closure was also threatened over school desegregation. Hardliners swore that Mississippi would shutter schools before blacks were placed in the same classrooms with whites. The hitch is that free public schools are required by Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution, as amended.

Now to the issue of the day: May Mississippi or any state, in light of the Supreme Court decision extending the legal rights of marriage to same-gender couples, simply repeal any and every mention of marriage in state law? May Mississippi get out of the marriage business? The answer, as earthshaking as some might find it, is yes.

Think about why states sell marriage licenses in the first place. Think about why states require a legal process (divorce) to dissolve a marriage. The states’ interests are public order, public health and facilitating the desire of people to enter contractual relationships that give rise to defined rights and obligations.

There is no mention of God on a marriage license application. There is also no mention of love or sacred oaths. In contrast, what states have required is blood tests to guard against the spread of disease. Too, couples may not be closely related — a safeguard against inbreeding.

If things don’t work out, dissolving a marriage in the eyes of the law is almost identical to ending a business partnership. There is no mention of holy bonds or blessed unions.
All of this again illustrates that religion and secular law have distinct and very different approaches to the topic — different goals, different reasons. For the law, marriage exists as a societal management tool. For churches, it is a sacrament. It has always been true that a couple could be married in the eyes of the law but not of a church as well as in the eyes of a church but not of the law.

Almost as soon as the Supreme Court said equal protection of the law, including marital law, includes same-gender couples, the question came up: “How long do you think it will be before preachers are arrested for refusing to perform weddings for gay couples?” The answer is a long time, a long, long time.

Religious denominations and clergy have always had full discretion when it comes to conducting marriages. Heterosexual couples — with complete and full legal rights to marry — are turned away by churches and pastors every day. Some churches will not perform a wedding unless the couple agrees to another sacrament — baptism. Some churches require premarital counseling. Some churches will not perform a marriage if a previous marriage for one or both “applicants” ended in divorce.

Again: A divorced person has every legal right to remarry; a license will not be refused. But that doesn’t mean a church will be required to bless the new union.
If the reasons for Mississippi or any other state to issue marriage licenses no longer exist, then the smart course of action would be to repeal all laws related to marriage. Laws do become outdated and irrelevant.

But if the impetus is to protect the rights of churches or clergy, well, that’s just folly.

There was no law to require municipalities to keep their pools open, but, as with schools, there are strong provisions protecting churches. The most prominent is right there in the First Amendment. It says no law shall be made (by any government or court) establishing a religion or (importantly) interfering with the free exercise thereof.

Some denominations or faiths embraced the court’s decision as affirming their practice of performing church weddings for same-gender couples. Others felt the next step will be railroading them into giving their blessing to unions they understand to be at odds with scripture.

This latter group doesn’t have to like the decision, but can take comfort in this: The same Constitution that confers marital rights to all couples is equally adamant that churches don’t have to approve. That hasn’t changed.

Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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