Uneconomic: marriage and civil union stuff

A couple weeks ago, the NYTimes had an article about weddings that turn out to be legally invalid, perhaps. (“Great Wedding! But Was It Legal?”, first SundayStyles page, 8/5/07; reposted here.) I’m a “minister” in the Universal Life Church myself, and have performed four weddings and have been asked to perform another next summer. My wife (ceremony performed by her cousin empowered by the ULC) also clicked the “make me a minister” button on the ULC website so she could perform a wedding for a friend of hers. So we take our possibly invalid weddings very seriously here in the Teller-Elsberg clan.

I know it’s got little to do with economics, exactly, but nonetheless, this article has got me thinking: all the recent debates over same-sex marriage (and/or civil unions) have served to make it clear that states should not approve or disapprove of any marriages whatsoever, regardless of who officiates. When the state’s acknowledgment of the legality of a marriage depends on the opinion of government officials regarding what is and is not a legitimate religion, or who is and who is not a legitimate minister within an otherwise legitimated religion, it is clear that the separation of church and state has been breached. Religious groups and organizations are the appropriate bodies to establish marriages, as marriage is clearly a union formed within a spiritual tradition, with all the benefits and burdens that that entails. The state, on the other hand, should only perform civil unions, whatever the sexual mix of those joining in blissful union.

Now all we need is a constitutional amendment.


  • Amen! The legal issue (well one of many I suppose), is that the (let’s call it) religious term “marriage” has been adopted in many Federal and State Statutes. For example in the tax code. It seems to me, simply replacing, through an act of congress (which of course might require an act of God!!), this term marriage with “Civil Union” and requiring all civil unions to be legalised, (2 consenting adults and a form filed at City Halls), coulld move us a lot closer to a church/state separation in this area.

  • Let religions do whatever they want — marriage is fundamentally a legal state. No need to replace it in laws. Maybe religions can make up their own words (I suggest “holy matrimony”).

  • Oh and if you don’t agree that marriage is a legal status — try getting a divorce without going to court.

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    Stargaazer, the point is that there is a kind of joining together of people that the government oversees/authorizes, and a different kind of joining together that is overseen/authorized by religious institutions. Unfortunately, in the current state of affairs the two kinds are mixed together and mingled. They overlap, and the word “marriage” is one aspect of that overlap; and the overlap (not only of the word “marriage” but of other aspects as well) is a situation of church and state being too intertwined. To separate church and state as should be the case under our Constitution, the kind of joining that the government does should be made fully distinct from the kind that the religious institutions do. My suggestion is that, among other fixes, the word “marriage” be dropped by the government and left for use by religious institutions. Of course marriage is currently a legal status–and that’s exactly part of the problem.