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EDITORIALS

What's a marriage and who is able to perform one?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - 12:01 am

Government and religions are mingled here in a unique way.

We just can’t seem to leave marriage alone in Indiana. First we had the fight over whether gay couples should have the same marriage rights as straight couples, and pretty much said no. Now there’s an attempt by a secular humanist group to get in on the marriage-vow business. It’s not as interesting as the gay marriage debate, but it’s interesting in its own way.

Under Indiana law, only public officials and those who obtain ordination as clergy are allowed to perform the marriage ceremony. Granted, any official will do, from a governor on down to a justice of the peace. And you can be “ordained” online by any number of church-in-name-only outfits. But if you don’t at least go through the “let’s pretend” exercise, forget about solemnizing any couple’s vows.

The Indianapolis-based Center for Inquiry sued for the right to have members of the group – proudly proclaiming itself not to be a religion – legally recognized as qualified to perform marriages. But Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled against them, saying that Indiana laws “do not deny equal protection to the nonreligious” and finding no “history of purposeful unequal treatment” of nonbelievers. This is the type of “accommodation of religious beliefs” meant to be covered by the First Amendment,” she said.

This gets to the heart of what marriage is. It can involve both religious significance and civic obligations, and the two often overlap. In fact, the way government and religions partner on marriage represents a mingling of government and religion we would not, in fact do not, tolerate under other circumstances. Of course, it’s only the civil part that counts as a matter of law. The state recognizes a union, collects a fee and issues a license. If those obligations have been met, it seems fair to ask, what difference can it possibly make who conducts the ceremony?

With strings attached

When the government sees a problem, it seems to know only one solution: Throw money at it. And never mind if the money is spent as intended or achieves the promised results. Out here in the real world, people tend to be a little more careful with their money.

Martha’s House, a Bloomington shelter for the homeless, for example, is implementing a new code of conduct for residents that bars them from asking strangers for money. People who panhandle tend to use the money to buy alcohol or illegal drugs. People don’t have to stay at the shelter, but those who do must show they’re willing to help themselves.

There’s a lesson there, but don’t expect anyone in government to learn it.