Little-known provisions in Indiana’s marriage law gives us a great example of why the church and the government should stay out of each other’s business.
An overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code brought attention to issues about same-sex marriage in that state that are raising eyebrows in the blogosphere. The new changes, which go into effect in July 1, 2014, apparently classify the act of knowingly furnishing false information when applying for a marriage license as a Class D felony, which will mean that those who lie when applying for a marriage license could face a maximum 18 months in jail or a $10,000 fine.
Indiana passed a ban on same-sex marriages in 1986, so there’s nothing new there. The effect of this reclassification of the level of felony is that the penalty would be lessened.
Contrary to what you may have read on other blogs that are trying to turn this into a story about a brand new law that specifically targets same-sex marriage, it isn’t.
The real rub, however, comes in another part of the code, which says that anyone who “knowingly solemnizes a marriage of individuals who are prohibited from marrying” will have committed a Class B misdemeanor, and, thereby, would face a maximum 180-day jail sentence or $1,000 fine.
There are some churches that allow their clergy to perform same-sex marriages, no matter how your denomination may feel about it.
And there’s the problem: this governmental law is reaching into the church to control what the church can and can’t do with regard to marriage, even if the church’s beliefs disagree. I can certainly understand the need to require correct information on a license. That’s a bureaucratic requirement that makes sense. If someone is willing to lie to fill out a government document, then they should be willing to face the consequences.
Once you get into performing a religious ceremony, however, that becomes dangerous ground. And no matter how you feel about same-sex marriage, this should bother you.
Given that the Supreme Court’s recent action on same-sex marriage, let’s imagine the other side of this scenario: if same-sex marriage can’t be banned constitutionally, then what’s to stop a state or local government from saying that any pastor who doesn’t perform a same-sex union might also be guilty of a crime?
If we’re talking about laws passed by legislators elected by the majority, and you believe it’s fair for the government to have something to say about how a church can or can’t conduct a marriage ceremony, then logically, you must believe that it’s fair for the majority to dictate what happens inside a church, no matter what the majority happens to be.
The fact is, pastors already enjoy wide latitude in which ceremonies they perform. Some will refuse to officiate a ceremony if they don’t know the couple or if the couple hasn’t undergone marriage counseling within their church. Some may apply Biblical principles to marriage, especially in the area of divorce. This isn’t so unreasonable: a church marriage is a covenant between the couple and God; a pastor should desire to make sure he or she feels that the covenant will be honored and should also have the option to decline to perform a ceremony if he feels the participants do not meet the qualifications for such a covenant based on the church’s beliefs.
A couple always has the option to get a legally-permitted marriage performed by non-clergy and have it count.
We have the concept of Separation of Church and State for a reason: to prevent government for imposing religious beliefs on its citizens and vice versa. It sometimes means that the government may pass laws that don’t always match up with Christian beliefs (or beliefs of other religions). But it also means that the church will have policies that may not always agree with legal interpretations.
Freedom of religion requires us to work around these issues, not abolish them altogether.