I Thee Wed: The Battle for Equal Marriage Rights

I Thee Wed:  The Battle for Equal Marriage Rights
Rev. Fred L Hammond
7 June 2009 ©
Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church
14 June 2009 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

Reading    From “The Irrational Season” by Madeleine L’Engle

Ultimately, there comes a time when a decision must be made.  Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take. It is indeed a fearful gamble.  Because it is the nature of love to create, a marriage itself is something which has to be created.  To marry is the biggest risk in human relations that a person can take.  If we commit ourselves to one person for life, that is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather it demands courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation.  It takes a lifetime to learn another person.  When love is not possession, but participation, then it is part of that co-creation which is our human calling.

I recently officiated at two weddings.  Both couples wanted a service that would reflect their theology and not the theology of their home congregation.  One couple was not comfortable with the notion of God and therefore wanted a service that would limit the presence of God in their service.  The other couple did not want a Christian service but rather one that embraced a God that would appeal to all people.   I was happy to do whatever service they wanted.  It was after all their wedding day and it needed to be meaningful to them as the couple began their lives as one. 

I was therefore a bit surprised when the couples insisted on some very traditional language.  The first wanted the ring ceremony to include the phrase, “with this ring I thee wed.”   It rarely is used any longer.  All of the wedding scripts I have seen in the recent years do not include this phrase.    The bride told me since she was a little girl, it was this phrase that stuck with her as being the pivotal moment in the wedding.  So yes, we included it. 

The second couple inserted this line, “If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else forever hold your peace.”  Again, a line that rarely appears any longer in wedding services except for those TV dramas but for this couple, if there was any doubt they were not to be married, this line would ensure that would be erased.  

I was fascinated by what each couple needed to have in their wedding ceremony in order for their marriage to be a real marriage.   The dreams held since youth of being married are romanticized.  I think we all have fantasized at some point what our wedding would be like when we found that certain someone to cherish and hold all the days of our lives.  We each have idealized what would constitute the perfect wedding ceremony for us. 

Parents also fantasize about their children’s weddings.  Fathers’ walking their daughter down the aisle is a rite of passage as much for the father as it is for the daughter.  It is an important moment—a vital moment in the life of the family, in the order of things. 

This is how when we were children were told it would be. We would grow up and marry, have kids of our own, raise them, and then walk them down the aisle to marry another… and the cycle continues. 

 If I had sound effects for this sermon this is where the needle would scratch across the recording in a loud halting stop. 

We all like the notion of having a traditional wedding ceremony.  Regardless of religious connotations, the wedding ceremony is a tradition that is held in honor.   It wasn’t always a tradition.  In fact, marriages were not always just between one man and one woman.  Former President Bush is quoted as saying, “Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization.”[1]   I wonder what type of marriage and which civilization he was referring to here. 

The earliest records of marriage include those in the Hebrew Scriptures.  See if you recognize these as traditional marriages:  Abraham marries his half sister Sarah. (Genesis 20:11-13).  Isaac marries Rebekah, his first cousin. (Genesis 24:14-16)   Jacob married his cousins, first Leah and then her sister Rachel and then takes Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah as a wife, and then Leah’s maidservant Zilpah as a wife.  (Genesis 29)   Ashhur had two wives, Helah and Naarah. (1 Chronicles 4) King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. 

These forms of marriages are considered taboo in today’s society.  We are not to marry our siblings or our first cousins, this is considered incest.  We are not to have more than one wife, this is considered polygamy.   

Marriage is an evolving institution.  How one marries has changed as much as who one marries.  In the marriages described in Hebrew history, one of two things happened.  The man looking for a wife asked the father for the bride or the father looking for a husband for his daughter, offered her hand in marriage.   The woman had little say in the matter because the woman was considered property and property could be bartered.  In the case of Jacob, he bartered for the hand of Rachel by working for her father seven years and when the seven years was up the father gave him Leah instead and then had Jacob work another seven years for Rachel’s hand. 

The line my couple wanted in their service: “If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else forever hold your peace.”  This line was to make sure there were no marriage impediments preventing the marriage in the eyes of the church.   One such impediment in the mid-15 century might have been being related to each other to the 6th degree.[2]  Since the belief that the two would be made one, a person marrying into a family would prevent anyone else from marrying into that family as well.   Divorce was not permitted so the only way to get out of a marriage was to then prove that there was an unknown or overlooked marriage impediment to then have the marriage annulled.   How many of you know your 5th and 6th cousin?  Or know that your 4th cousin married your partner’s 3rd cousin thereby preventing you and your partner to marry?

How is marriage defined in this country?  In the 1690’s love between spouses was discouraged because it was thought it would weaken the man’s authority over the woman[3].   Most marriages were declared by the couple declaring it so; churches and government were not involved.  This form of common-law marriages[4] is still recognized in eleven states. Many states removed common-law marriages from being recognized in the 1970’s[5].

Prior to Queen Victoria, women were often considered the lustier sex.  Queen Victoria’s elevation of chastity[6] changed the perception of women to be seen as chaste and pure in and out of the marriage.  Prostitution increased as a result.   Also prior to Queen Victoria, it was customary for the newly weds to do a bridal tour, visiting relatives that were unable to attend the wedding.  By the mid-19th century, the honeymoon began to replace this traditional event but it was still not what we consider to be honeymoons today.  The bride brought her girlfriends with her[7]

In the mid- 1800’s there were experiments[8] in how one defined marriage.  The Oneida Community in upstate New York had what they called group marriage.  Each person was married to each other adult in the group.  The community would decide by matching characteristics which male and female would procreate.  The Mormons allowed polygamy within their religious circle.  When Utah applied to become a state of the union, the only way it would be admitted was if the state would outlaw polygamy.   It did so. 

Before the Civil War, slaves[9] were not allowed to marry as they were seen as property.  Ceremonies might have occurred between partners but they were not honored by the slave owners.  Inter-racial marriages were banned in 16 states until Loving v Virginia decision of the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1967[10].   In the early 1900’s, there was a national law stating that if a woman married an Asian;  even a US born Asian, she would lose her citizenship[11].  This ban was also lifted in 1967. 

The law now recognizes the marriage partnership is made up of equals. Previously the law stated that the male was the legal head of household or rightful owner of property.  

So when people state that marriage has always been a certain way, they are speaking from ignorance because marriage is evolving.  Marriage today isn’t even what marriage was 50 years ago.  So the request of gays and lesbians to have marriage rights is not without historical precedent.

According to John Boswell, church historian, the relationship of David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Scriptures was a marriage.   Boswell writes, “ [A]ccording to 1 Samuel 18:1, ‘it came to pass… the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.’ The two made a ‘covenant’ together—the text employs the word used for a marriage covenant elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture –and David and Jonathan lived together in Saul’s house, even though Jonathan had children. David was still unmarried.  He later took Jonathan’s surviving heir into his household to eat at his table, which he did ‘for Jonathan’s sake’.  After Jonathan was killed, David lamented publicly, ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of a woman.’ ( p 137 Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe)

 It seems that David and Jonathan had a covenanted relationship that was akin to a marriage.  David cared for Jonathan’s children after Jonathan was killed.  Much like a spouse would do for his or her partner’s children even if there was a previous partner involved.

Currently six states have same sex marriage.  One state has civil unions and three states have domestic partnerships.  Three additional states recognize same sex marriages performed in other states but do not offer same sex marriages to their citizens.   

In the Defense of Marriage Act brief (aka DOMA) released on the 42nd anniversary of Loving v Virginia, which by the way, made the marriage of President Obama’s parents legal in every state, the federal government is claiming neutrality on the issue of state sovereignty regarding same gender marriage.  The federal government is not a neutral party. 

One of the rights afforded to heterosexual couples is the right to grant citizenship to the foreign partner through marriage.  No state, not even the six states that currently grant same sex marriage rights can offer this right.  Only the federal government can grant citizenship. The federal government cannot be neutral when it has a vested interest in this matter.  And I haven’t even mentioned the other 1,048 rights and benefits the federal government bestows on heterosexual marriages. 

But neutrality over state sovereignty is not the half of what this particular DOMA brief claims.   This brief dares to argue that laws prohibiting same sex marriage are as valid as laws prohibiting incest and pedastry.  It further states that comparing same sex marriage rights to arguments presented by Loving v Virginia are invalid.

In my blog I wrote,  “Loving V Virginia declared the laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages as unconstitutional and “designed to maintain White Supremacy.”  In referring to the Loving V Virginia case, the Obama Administration argues that with DOMA there is  ‘No comparable purpose is present here, however, for DOMA does not seek in any way to advance the ’supremacy’ of men over women, or women over men. Thus DOMA cannot be ‘traced to a … purpose’ to discriminate against either men or women.  In upholding the traditional definition of a marriage, numerous courts have rejected an alleged analogy to Loving.’

Sexual orientation is not a recognized suspect class needing protection.  If it were then the analogy would be clearer to the courts, because what DOMA does is assert heterosexual supremacy over homosexuality.  DOMA places the heterosexual orientation above all other orientations of sexuality as supreme and therefore entitled to rights and privileges.[12]

President Obama, when he was a candidate for office, in addition to vowing to repeal DOMA, advanced an argument to offer civil unions to gays and lesbians while maintaining marriage as between one man and one woman.   Let’s look at this argument a bit further.  Why would it be important to offer civil unions to gay and lesbian couples?  It will allow for hospital visiting rights of the partner when one of them is ill or dying.  It will place inheritance rights to the partner above the deceased’s immediate family. 

This last one is important.  I remember a couple that lived together for over 20 years and one of them was dying with AIDS.  The couple had built a life together.  They were not able to have joint property rights because they were not married so the house was in the partner’s name.  The partner who was dying did leave a will in which he left everything to his partner.  The will was contested and the family won as being the closest blood relative.  And when the partner died, the family swooped in; removed the body to be buried in their home state, removed items from the house and had the partner evicted and eventually sold the house.  Everything they had built together was taken from them.  A family that had no contact with their son since he came out of the closet had legal claim to everything he had built with his partner.   Yes, a civil union might have prevented this from happening if the state where the family was from also recognized civil unions. 

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are about death and illness protection.   Marriage is about life.  Marriage is about the building of a life together.  Yes there are similar protections in a marriage.   But marriage also has federal benefits; 1,049 benefits.   Yes many of these have to do with death and illness but they also include; joint parenting, joint adoption, joint custody rights,  immigration and residency for partners from other countries, veterans’ discounts on medical care, education, and home loans; joint filing of tax returns, and many, many more.   These are about building a life together. 

There is the fear that by allowing gays and lesbians to marry that it would somehow force conservative religious entities to performing marriages against their doctrinal beliefs.  This is such a palpable fear that Governor Lynch of New Hampshire stated he would not sign any same sex marriage legislation unless there was a provision stating that religious groups would not be forced to perform same sex weddings.     I can assure you as a minister, I am free to refuse to marry anyone that I want for whatever reason.  I am not under any obligation to marry anyone regardless of who they are.  I did a wedding last year for a couple whose minister refused to marry them because minister’s belief required him to only marry born again Christians.   That right is within the minister’s or priest’s jurisdiction.  It is a fear that is found-less and completely false. 

There is a fear that somehow by allowing same sex marriages it would diminish or invalidate opposite marriages.  The Roman Catholic Church believes that it diminishes the true purpose of marriage which according to their church teaching is procreation[13].  The difficulty I have with this doctrine is that the Roman Catholic Church does not refuse to marry couples who are past their child bearing age or couples where the woman had medically life saving surgery that resulted in an inability to have children.  If procreation was the sole purpose of marriage then these other couples should not be allowed to marry because the purpose can no longer be fulfilled. 

 There is, I believe a higher purpose for couples to marry than procreation.   In Christian theology, marriage is often seen as being symbolic of the love god has for humanity.  The devotion that the couple is to show each other is similar to the devotion that god would show them.  

There are many examples in the Abrahamic Scriptures of God making covenants with his people.  David Myers and Letha Scanzoni point out in their book[14], What God Has Joined Together? “that the Hebrew prophet Hosea has God liken his covenant with Israel to a betrothal: “I will betroth you to me for ever. … I will betroth you to me in faithfulness” (Hos. 2:19-20).

“Perhaps,” Myers and Scanzoni write, “rather than thinking in terms of gender, we might instead consider the characteristics of that covenant …. justice, fairness, love, kindness, faithfulness and a revelation of God’s personhood. … If these characteristics define an ideal marriage, might two homosexual persons likewise form such a union? … If we can think in those terms, might we … accept these (same sex) covenantal relationships as indeed a joining of two persons by God?” 

To join together in a covenanted relationship to emulate these characteristics of justice, fairness, love, faithfulness, isn’t this a modeling of behaviors that is needed to be seen in this world?  

Isn’t it these values that the two couples had to have in their wedding in order for it to be a real marriage ceremony?  The words are different, but listen for these values in the vows the couples made to each other: “To have and to hold, From this day forward, For better, for worse, For richer, for poorer, In sickness and in health, In sorrow or in joy, To love and to cherish As long as we both shall live.”

Why would anyone want to prevent that kind of commitment to love from being made?   Why indeed.  

[1] As found on the internet at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11442710/  on  5 June 2009

[2] as found at  http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/ATLAS_EN/html/history_of_marriage_in_western.html

[3] as found at  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20050506-000006.html

[4] as found at  http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/ATLAS_EN/html/history_of_marriage_in_western.html

[5] as found at http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20040329&slug=marriagehistory29m

 [6] as found at  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20050506-000006.html

[7] IBID

[8] as found at  http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/ATLAS_EN/html/history_of_marriage_in_western.html

[9] as found at http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20040329&slug=marriagehistory29m

[10] as found at http://www.ameasite.org/loving.asp

[11] as found at http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20040329&slug=marriagehistory29m

[12] Fred L Hammond, Heterosexual Supremacy essay at Unitarian Universalist in the South as found at http://www.serenityhome.wordpress.com

[13] The Threat of Same Sex Marriage as found at http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=3627

[14] I have lost the source for this section.  Ultimately it is from the book, but this section was a quote from the book for a review of the book.


  1. Should something that’s evolving be a right? Marriage is changing, and will change again…so do we lock it in as a fundamental natural right?

    Bill, interesting question. The obverse also holds… Should something that is evolving be frozen at a specific stage of development (vis a vis DOMA) and declare it can not evolve beyond this point? Thank you.

  2. Fred,
    Thanks for a fascinating and well-reasoned sermon on this topic. I thought I knew most of the history of marriage, but I did not know of the national law against Causasian women marrying Asian men. So, I also learned something new!

    I agree that clergy are free to officiate or not at weddings as we choose. Gov. Lynch’s insistence on an “escape clause” for ministers is offensive to me, as I believe our religious principles are being violated by NOT being able to officiate at ceremonies recognized by all states as valid marriages for gays and lesbians.

    EBS, the argument from the state is that we as clergy are not being stopped from officiating at any ceremony; therefore no violation of church and state separation. We are not prevented from doing the ceremony, we are prevented from having it recognized by the state. Blessings,

    • Let the state (and some others) then quail. All we are prevented from (and I do not deny or diminish or miss the import of it to individuals–that is what we are struggling for, and over) is legal recognition.

      The state cannot tell us what is right, real and true.

      We will continue to recognize and validate what is real–love, commitment and devotion.

      We will continue to struggle for that to be acknowledged in law.

      But the law cannot lead here, it can only follow; bleating and complaining.

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