Friday, September 14, 2007

Would the congregation please rise...

YORK, Pa. (AP) - September 12, 2007 - A York County judge says a man ordained over the Internet can't perform a legal wedding in Pennsylvania. That's because the Universal Life Church minister doesn't have a congregation that he meets with regularly or a place of worship. The church is planning to challenge the ruling. A church official says accepting some ministers but not others is arbitrary and violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Someone tell me whether I'm allowed to post the whole of an AP story without permission, which I have done here. (If not, I'll remove it, and leave a link instead.) I just had to talk about this one. I'm actually quite surprised that in a web search on this, it was actually so hard to find. In my mind, this is one of the top stories of the week, but then of course, I know that I am obsessed with issues having to do with religion in the culture, so it's probably just me.

It's quite possible that someone reading may not have heard of the Universal Life Church. I don't know how well-known they are, but they're pretty easy to sum up. Essentially, the ULC is a church simply for the sake of being a church. Seriously. They are a church with no tenets or rules whatsoever, and the thing they are best known for is that they will ordain people as ministers if you send them a self-addressed stamped envelope. Actually, I don't think even that much effort is necessary. Nope, it isn't: I just got ordained in less time it took me to cut and paste the article above. Seriously. I'm a freakin' minister now.

Their site features a new option to confess sins online, and to my surprise, a list of ULC congregations, which I did not know to exist. (Perhaps they're just made up? Names of local congregations include "Desert Rainbow Phundamentalists", "Our Divine Coven", and "Church of Drawing".) But enough about the ULC, you could almost read about it on their own site in less time than you could read my own ramblings about it. I've got a point or two I wanted to make about the story.

Okay, so the ULC is a fake church--so to speak. As they themselves point out, legally they are a church in some sort of technical sense that I'm not going to bother to figure out, but anyone who takes a moment or two to familiarize himself with the "church" realizes that it's in essence a bunch of crap. But that does not mean that the ruling of this judge is right.

Let's face it; as I and others have said so rightly before, faith is a very personal thing. What could possibly give the government the right to step in and say that any particular faith is bullshit, even and perhaps especially when it's so very obviously the case? Since when was it required that a minister had to have a group of followers to be a minister? Why is it that you can have a wedding performed by a justice of the peace or the captain of a ship or various other people in specialized positions, but as a "minister", you only qualify if you have followers? (Surely a minister who is performing a wedding has in theory at least two followers, right?)

This news story is possibly a landmark in the history of the separation of church and state, but it occurred to me that there may be an implication here that strikes to the heart of another issue: same-sex marriage. I feel like I've said it here before, but I can't find it in any post so at the risk of repeating myself, let me give you my fantasy resolution to the same-sex marriage issue. A number of the people who oppose same-sex marriage claim that it's a religious issue, and that God ordained it to be so that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. In my mind, if that is so (and I personally believe it myself) then it follows that if the government has no right to meddle in the matter of marriage since it's a religious issue, then they should get right out of the marriage business! Everyone always says to me, "You're nuts, that would never happen!" and I know it's not realistic, but really, I'd like to see not only same-sex marriage banned from ever becoming legal, but I'd like all laws pertaining to the institution of marriage, regardless of the gender(s) of the parties involved, to be simply dissolved.

There came a time about three years into my own marriage where my wife and I had need of a copy of our marriage certificate (I think perhaps it had something to do with Social Security records), and could not find one. We realized that neither of us had ever seen our marriage certificate, and wondered if in fact it existed. My wife was worried about this; I was not. I told her that I had married her by giving a vow to God, not a vow to the government. If the government did not have a piece of paper recording that vow, it mattered very little to me.

Anyway, I find myself wondering if people are using their ULC ordinations to perform same-sex marriages? If not, despite the fact that I said above that I oppose legalization of it, I think people should be. If you really believe that the government has no right to tell you who you can or cannot spend your life with, then why fight? It reminds me of a principle of Buddhism that I have talked about in this blog before, that if the world is an illusion, then there is no point striving against an illusion, simply ignore it and seek enlightenment.

It's a small story, one hardly noticed in the press at all, and yet, there's something potentially profound here. Even though the ULC is not really a religion in any practical sense, it cuts to the heart of the bizarreness of what happens when we try to have a non-religious government that meddles in religion. This may lead to a place where the government is more entwined with religion than ever before, or it may lead to the exact opposite. Who can say, but I'm sure we all can hope, right?

And some of us can become ministers, I suppose...


Tara said...

I think the reason this hasnt made more news is that it is so clearly a bullshit ruling that will be overturned by the next judge who breathes on it (I seriously hope!) There are many, many faiths and traditions throughout the world that do not have *congregations* or specific *places of worship* - many Native American, Aborginal, Pagan, and various shamanistic traditions, etc. There are plenty of ministers and rabbis who travel around performing weddings and other rites but who do not have their own congregation or worship at the same place every week. Its just totally ludicrious and I dont see how it will pass the smell test. The ULC has fought, and won, many such battles before. This judge clearly has a particular hard-on for the ULC and doesnt give a shit about little things like the Constitution or exsiting case law.

The ULC serves an incredibly important and meaningful function. Without the ULC, anyone who wanted to be married outside an established *religion* would be forced to go to City Hall, and would have no opportunity to create a ceremony with personal meaning performed by a person of their own choosing. I find it ridiculous that the ULC has to do this, but I am so glad they do. I was married by an ULC minister, as were most of my married friends. I have no particular animosity towards religious traditions, but for myself, I find my spirituality to be a very personal experience that I do not wish explore as part of a group. I would think that the priniciple of separation of church and state should allow for my beliefs, without having to resort to a *bullshit* religion such as the ULC. They shouldnt have to exsist at all, but I am very grateful that they do.

If this ruling goes any further, I know that a lot of groups will up in arms about it very quickly.

Brucker said...

Actually, shortly after posting this, I realized that it might not be a big news item because it probably happens all the time. Like I said, the ULC is, on some level, a bit of a joke, and its very existence probably offends many people. If those people are in a position of some authority, they're likely to (ab)use their authority to keep the ULC from much of anything.

As you say though, spirituality is a personal thing, even for those of us involved in organized religion. I think people of all varieties of faith need to be able to have the sorts of things that you get from organized religion despite not being a part of one. It sounded strange, but I was relieved to hear that soldiers serving in Iraq actually have atheist chaplains that are serving.

You know maybe in a subtly implied fashion, what this ruling is saying is that you can only get married if you belong to a church; after all, many if not most ministers who do have congregations only perform ceremonies for members of their own congregation.

marauder said...

I'm afraid you're missing the point here. Insofar as a church can marry people before God, Universal Life Church has the authority to do it, and no one is stopping them.

Government has the right and authority to regulate marriage as a civil affair; i.e., to be married in the eyes of the state, you need to have a state-approved officer perform the wedding (or rather). States regulate this aspect of the marriage ceremony however much or little they want to. I believe all 50 states include ordained ministers in the list of approved marriage officers, but because marriage is a civil function, some states also add additional requirements. Pennsylvania is one of them.

Pennsylvania allows ministers to officiate at weddings as long as they are recognized as ministers by an organized congregation. So no, the Rev. Jim Podunk cannot use his ordination certificate from ULC to perform a state-recognized wedding -- unless, of course, he has a congregation that recognizes his ordination as legitimate.

New Jersey is different. I printed myself an ordination certificate for the fun of it a few years ago, and all I have to do is to produce that and it is legal evidence that I am permitted to perform weddings in this state.

God recognizes whatever unions he wants to; for the state to recognize it as in compliance with state legal codes, the ceremony must meet the state's guidelines.

Brucker said...

Yeah, I did some poking around and found out I'm good in California. Still, I don't like the idea of the government saying who's a "real" minister or not. That's the real thing that's bothering me here.

marauder said...

But the government isn't saying which ministers are real and which are charlatans. First Amendment gets in the way of that every time.

What the govt. is doing is saying which ministers have the authority to make a couple "legally wed."

Brucker said...

But why? This seems like an arbitrary distinction. It just doesn't seem right to me.

marauder said...

I have no idea, just that marriage qua civic function is something that falls under the aegis of government, and different governments choose different ways to regulate it.