State Should Respect Church's Marriage Ceremonies, Attorney Argues

Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT
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( - A Georgetown University Law School faculty member says churches should be allowed to marry anyone they want, without state interference.

David Saperstein, a rabbi and attorney, believes the State of New York has no business bringing charges against two Unitarian Universalist ministers for "marrying" 13 same-sex couples.

On Monday, the Ulster County, N.Y., district attorney filed charges against two ministers who conducted 13 marriage ceremonies in New Paltz on March 6. The lesbian couples involved did not have marriage licenses.

''The solemnizing of marriage ceremonies between unlicensed couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, is a violation of New York State law," District Attorney Donald Williams said in a statement.

Saperstein said the arrests raise "at least three serious concerns for Americans who cherish religious freedom." (Saperstein heads the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which supports same-sex marriage, and teaches seminars on church-state law and Jewish law at Georgetown.)

First, he said, the Constitution's promise of religious freedom means clergy should be allowed to officiate at religious ceremonies without state interference. "To do otherwise -- to allow the state to set the terms under which members of clergy religiously solemnize relationships -- would stand the First Amendment on its head," Saperstein said.

"Second, although the clergy [in New Paltz] may have committed a technical violation of state law, the charges were brought under a law that is almost never enforced. This selective enforcement is both morally problematic and legally questionable," Saperstein argued.

And finally, he said, although the ministers may have "violated civil authority," he said their actions should be "respected" as a form of civil disobedience.

As previously reported, prominent conservatives also believe that the debate over civil marriage could ultimately change the way that churches treat marriage.

Conservatives of various religious denominations said the threats include the possibility that churches could be stripped of their tax-exempt status -- for refusing to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

See Related Story:
Marriage Changes May Shake Churches' Tax Exemptions (2/23/04)

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