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What is marriage? Is it a sacred rite or a civil right? What role, if any, should religious institutions, traditions or beliefs have in the legal act of marriage?
Marriage in the U.S. is both an issue of religion and of civil jurisdiction. On the one hand are the religious rituals of marriage that vary from faith to faith, and on the other is the civil recognition of those unions.
Because we as a nation have chosen to give special status to individuals who are married — tax breaks, for instance — marriage is in fact a civil right, not just a religious ceremony. To deny marriage to individuals is to deny them access to governmental bonuses and services. As such, marriage should be available equally to all American citizens, just as, say, welfare benefits are.
Religions, on the other hand, do not convey the same civil benefits as governments. They give a faith-based, social approbation of marital relationships. Obviously, many of us want the sanction and approval of a church with regards to marriage. Even people who do not regularly attend church (or other house of worship) hold their wedding in one, or have it officiated by a priest (or other religious leader). Whether this is just due to traditional customs, to human needs for approval from authority figures, the significance of rites of passage to the human psyche, or some other factors, it remains a fact that marriage and religion go hand in hand in the minds of the vast majority of Americans.
Because no one is forced to follow a particular faith, or to join a particular church, we should not require churches to sanction marriages which they believe go against their beliefs. At the same time, it is important that we do have churches who will marry people who do not fit the norm for marriage, whether that is mixed-race couples, interfaith couples or gay couples. The path to that, is not through governmental regulation, but through people of like mind coming together to celebrate marriage in the way they see fit.