Friday, April 25, 2003

Marriage and other freedoms


There has been a lot of news lately about the goings on up at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church. That's the place where Pastor Stephen Van Kuiken sometimes performs gay marriages and where people of all persuasions are invited to fully participate in all church functions and worship services.

It's been a real practical study of how freedom of religion is supposed to work in this country.

The larger Presbyterian Church has rules against performing gay marriages, although members of the Mount Auburn congregation, at least most of them, seem quite comfortable with Van Kuiken's interpretation of his clerical duties. Indeed, Mount Auburn's policy of inclusion has been in effect for about 10 years, seven years longer than Van Kuiken has been pastor. It's a good bet that the congregation found just the sort of minister it was looking for when it hired him.

But Mount Auburn is a church with 280 members, while Presbyterians overall number about 2.5 million. The denomination has a right to enforce its rules and after friendly persuasion didn't work, a formal ecclesiastical charge was lodged against the minister. That resulted in a guilty verdict by a seven-member commission of the Cincinnati Presbytery last week. Van Kuiken could have been kicked out of the denomination, but the commission instead decided just to publicly "rebuke" him, essentially telling him not to do it anymore. He said he would appeal the ruling and follow his conscience, which means he will continue to perform gay marriages.

Sooner or later one of three things will happen: Van Kuiken will conform to the church rules; the church will change its rules; or he, and maybe his entire congregation, will leave the Presbyterian Church, perhaps forming a new church. Given the lightness of the sentence in the face of Van Kuiken's admitted "guilt," there is clearly some ambivalence about this issue going on in the Presbyterian Church.

The best part of this controversy, from an American point of view, is that the government isn't involved in it.

The government has no interest at all in what the rules of the Presbyterian Church are, whether those rules are observed at Mount Auburn, or whether or not Stephen Van Kuiken gets to keep his collar. This is an interesting contrast to the way religious differences are treated in, oh say, Iraq.

Where the government is concerned, there shouldn't any one true church. That's a concept America's founders understood, but which lately seems to be lost on some of our government leaders, which explains why Franklin Graham was invited to conduct Good Friday services at the Pentagon.

It also may explain why so many states insist on worrying about things better left to ecclesiastical courts. Why, for instance, does the state of Ohio care whether marriages occur between gay people? As far as the state should be concerned, marriage is just a legal contract, binding the participants with certain community property laws and survivorship rights. You don't have to get married in a church, although for convenience sake, the state allows members of the clergy to officially supervise the execution of these contracts. But from the state's point of view, a marriage at the courthouse is just as binding as one at the cathedral.

Why then does Ohio, and most other states, care with whom I enter a marriage contract? As long as I am willing to plunk down the requisite $45 license fee, isn't the state getting all that it is entitled to out of the deal?

Last year the Ohio House passed something called the "Defense of Marriage Act," which luckily was blocked in the Senate. Supporters of the act worried that if the state had to recognize gay marriages it could lead to economic chaos as partners made claims under laws governing pensions, health care and insurance. Heavens, wouldn't that be the end of civilization?

These concerns remind me of the arguments made against women's suffrage in the early 20th Century. If women can vote the next thing you know they'll want to have jobs, wear pants, drink whisky and decide whether to have children - where might it all end?

Beats the heck out of me. But we ought to be willing to find out.

Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells._

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