Pastors should declare independence from government marriage (Opinion from Pepper Bryars)

Last week’s Supreme Court rulings in favor of gay marriage brought a conflict of conviction to the hearts of many conservatives. Most of us are instinctively sympathetic to causes involving liberty; we like it when government gets out of people’s lives. But we’re also mindful of traditions, and most conservatives believe that marriage between one man and one woman is the social foundation and economic engine of civilization. Many of our faiths teach against gay marriage, too, and some of us agree as a matter of conscience.

We shudder to stand against a particular freedom, but for many the issue isn’t chiefly about gay couples marrying. It’s about government eroding marriage, and not just by redefining its meaning. Government’s permissive divorce laws and incentives for poor mothers to remain unmarried, for instance, have wrecked families.

Sure, marriage wasn’t redefined last week, but it’s just a matter of time. Until then, what should be the strategy for those who love liberty but support traditional marriage? Many say: Pass legislation, hold referendums and file appeals. Maybe so, but perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps we should just walk away from the issue altogether. Let’s leave the government to its definitions, and choose instead to focus on what truly defines and binds our marriages — our faith. Let’s establish a clear distinction between traditional and government marriages.

How do we do this? To begin with, like minded pastors could stop signing state marriage licenses. This is where the church and state intersect on the issue, and pastors legitimize the government’s involvement when they act as state-approved officiants. Stopping this practice would clearly demonstrate that traditional marriage isn’t the same as government marriage.

It’s all about who we allow to exercise jurisdiction and power over marriage. For example, most people get married by a pastor in a church, yet they get divorced by a judge in a courthouse. Those are two distinct jurisdictions: one is eternal and limitless, while the other is temporary and bounded. One joins two souls in the eyes of God. The other allows them to conduct state business. But we’ve mixed the two so much that people routinely establish marriage in one jurisdiction and disestablish it in another. Pastors could help by conducting their ceremonies free from government involvement. Get your traditional marriage at the church. Then get whatever oaths, signatures and stamps are required for government marriage down at the courthouse.

Think about who we’ve given the power to define marriage. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote about that in his dissenting opinion last week. “This case is about power in several respects,” he wrote. “It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law.” He went on to declare that the justices “have no power to decide this case.” But both sides are clamoring for just that; for some branch of government to decide. But which? Some want it decided by nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. Others say the 535 people we send to Congress, or the one we send to the White House. Others believe it belongs to the 50 states, where the power to define marriage is given to dozens of governors, hundreds of justices and thousands of legislators.

However, if we’re letting government decide, in a democracy, we’re ultimately relying on the shifting opinion of millions of our fellow citizens. That’s a shaky foundation for a pillar of society like marriage. So perhaps we should think again before giving such power to government.

Meanwhile, in the face of the current marriage upheaval, maybe we should simply walk away. Maybe we should simply refuse to recognize any court’s jurisdiction or government’s power to define the terms of our traditional marriages. Leave the state to handle the details of government marriage, however it defines the term. We’ll focus on strengthening and rebuilding traditional marriage as an unchangeable institution under God’s jurisdiction, and his power. We’ll abide by both laws, God’s and man’s, as we always have — but we won’t believe they’re the same. And by declaring this independence from government marriage, maybe we won’t have to worry about any Congresses, courts or public opinion surveys telling us any different.

J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. You can reach him at