Restricting Marriage is a Justice Issue

wedding-ringsWhat is Marriage…legally?

With all the news items about Utah, New Mexico, and the UMC’s removal of clergy credentials from a pastor who officiated a same-gender wedding led me to bring this post out of draft form and into the light.

This past summer at my local church, I led a series on “What is Marriage?” as a Sunday Morning class. We talked about both the biblical and legal definitions of marriage to give greater context to not only to the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases that were before the Supreme Court at the time, but also to the anticipated 2014 Ballot question here in Oregon to rescind the state constitutional restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples.

For the first session, we had a lawyer who is an expert in family law come and talk to our Sunday School class about “what is marriage?”

Our full conversation table heard the following three parts of the conversation (there were four parts, but I’ve removed the prenuptial/postnuptial conversation as it isn’t relevant to this blog post). These are the legal meanings, benefits, and liabilities of being married under the law.



I. Being Together: There are Four Choices

  1. Live together with no written agreement (which could become a Common Law Partnership)
  2. Live together, but have a written agreement
  3. Marry (opposite sex), or register as domestic partners (same sex)
  4. Marry/Register and have a written agreement (Prenuptial)

II. Basic Effects of #3 & #4 Marriage: The Standard Package of Benefits and Liabilities

  1. During the marriage: healthcare issues, forms of property ownership, transfers between spouses, liability for medical debts, joint tax filings, testimonial privilege, immigration issues, pension benefits, etc.
  2. Upon divorce: rights to spousal support, social security benefits (if marriage lasts more than l0 years), division of property even if not commonly held, rules regarding support and property division (some clarity).
  3. Upon death: right to sue for wrongful death, preference to be appointed PR, right to live in residence for l year, right to support for 2 years, right to elect against will, right to intestate share, right to half of community property, workers’ comp and social security benefits, estate tax benefits such as unlimited transfers between spouses, and portability.

III. Supreme Court Issues

  • Hollingsworth (Prop 8): Can California ban same sex marriage? No.
  • Windsor (DOMA): Can the federal government be barred from recognizing same sex marriage sanctioned by states? No.
  • What happens next? Gay marriage will be authorized on a state by state basis. As a result, federal benefits will apply to gay couples in a patchwork fashion, depending on a couple’s state of residence, the type of benefit involved, and the state they are traveling in/move to.


The super-helpful part for my congregation was the laundry list of rights that you have for being married or registered as domestic partners. To deny all those rights from a couple for whatever reason seemed to be a justice issue for them.

The final line from the lawyer was this:

It is tremendously disadvantageous to not be able to get married in America.

Thus, our class talked intensely about what it means to have the church be standing in the way of a better quality of life for people who otherwise would be granted the same rights heterosexuals enjoy. Regardless of theological or polity reasons against marriage, how can we say we are on the side of creating a just society?

What do you think?

  1. Why does our country give so many benefits to married people?
  2. How is a situation where one documented and persistent group of people cannot get married and cannot gain all these rights a just situation?

Thanks for your comments!

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  1. Pubilius says

    No legal experience here, but perhaps our country’s benefits to married people goes back to precedent and common law, needing to assist people once they left the household of their parents and started one of their own (as opposed to even further precedence, in at least several western traditions, where the oldest living male had complete control over all of the family regardless of location). But it is an interesting question– I’ve even met straight single people who don’t believe married people should receive any additional benefits from company or the state, I think that’s equally unjust.
    Prior to DOMA strike out, there were over 1,000 benefits LGBTQ couples could not receive, I wonder what that number is now at the state level (and the hardship of having to relocate for a marriage licence in a marriage equality state, knowing that federal agencies apply marriage definitions differently– some use the state of residency).
    I know several LGBTQ couples personally here in the south who spend far more on healthcare, and in one case even live in different states due to the significant difference in cost of living and laws from their marriages not being recognized, and lack of DPB at their current employment. It truly is an issue of justice (with the Duck Dynasty controversy this past week, several well-meaning folks have posted “what about hunger? poverty? and issues of justice, we need to move forward and get over the DD comments!” completely overlooking that the treatment of LGBTQ people, in law and church is an issue of justice in itself, while overlapping and intersecting with poverty and access to healthcare, etc.)

  2. Churchola says

    “Why does our country give so many benefits to married people?”
    A number of my queer friends (and a few straight ones too) have focused on this question, adding a “still” at the end. I’ve started to agree with them.

  3. Laura Farley says

    I would think that the many benefits given to married people is because marriage is seen as a stabilizing force in a society. Marriage and the rights garnered through marriage would not have developed if it were not of use to society.
    As for gay marriage I believe it should be legalized and all states recognize it as they already do traditional marriage. I believe that my church, UMC, should recognize it, I do think that the legal acceptance and church acceptance are separate issues.

  4. James Lung says

    Before I provide possible answers to your questions, I would like to address a question to you. You are pastor to a church. A church is not a social club, a civic organization, or a political group. It might be appropriate for a lawyer to address these groups about marriage as now deconstructed by our pagan culture.

    My question: Why would a pastor of a Christian church not be interested in how marriage is defined in Scripture and how the church has traditionally (everyone, everywhere, always) viewed marriage?

    1. Society provides benefits to married couples because marriage (defined as a union of one man and one woman for life) is a good that we do well to encourage. The viability and effectiveness of a civic polity depends upon a culture whose institutions nurture and reinforce what is good for human beings to grow in their humanity. Marriage and the in tact family of husband and wife and children is the only institution man has devised to perform the important function socializing and acculturating human beings to a culture that offers the hope of civic peace and the opportunity for men and women to flourish as human beings. That the polity should organize itself in such a way as to encourage men and women to covenant to live together as a family, as previously defined, is a no brainer. The appropriate answer to your first question is “Well, duh . . . . ?”

    2. Is there only “One documented and persistent group . . .” denied access to this status? Hardly. The possible permutations and combinations of “group(s)” denied access to that status is limitless.

    I realize that we live in a pagan culture that is premised on the proposition that words have no meaning and that the only reality is that which we can measure. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be living in the real world — not the pagan one. “This saying is only for those to whom it has been given.” The Christian lives in a world where the apparent does not exhaust the real, and there is a realm of ought (natural law) accessible to the intellect to which men and women, to be fully human, should defer.

    Marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life. One ought not need to write a book to explain this to a sane, sentient man or woman.

    Again: There are some things we cannot not know. If Jeremy is unable to discern what real marriage is, then a greater intellect than this writer’s must be brought to the fore. Though we may try, we cannot define the meaning of IS is. The word “marriage” is the symbol we have settled upon to give form to the transcendent reality that already exists. “It was not thus from the beginning.”
    Sound familiar?

    I apologize for the tone of this response. You and I live in different worlds. God bless you.

    James Lung

    • John Handy Bosma says

      Would a pastor be interested in how slavery is defined in scripture or how the church has traditionally viewed slavery? The problem is your argument is a point in time that accepts some traditional misreadings of the NT as binding, while jettisoning other traditional misreadings. Unless you’re pro-slavery. Sorry, remind me again where in the New Testament marriage is defined as between one man and one woman for life, without exception? Full context, please, no cherry-picking. Does the NT actually “define” marriage at all?

  5. John says

    Well said, James.
    It’s ironic that in another post Jeremy argued that Jesus stands in opposition to the powers and principalities (which are generally understood to refer to the State, or Caesar), yet his entire argument here is that the church must look to the State as the arbiter of a just society, with the church taking the role of adviser to Caesar. However, that form of church-state relation is only applicable in the peculiar construct known as Christendom, which is bound by time and geography to the so-called Western world from the time of Constantine until the last part of the twentieth century. We are witnessing the death throes of that social order. Europe and North America are rapidly being transformed into a secular (need I say, pagan) culture to which the Christian faith and the church are seen as irrelevant. Interestingly, both Progressives and Fundamentalists are having an equally difficult time recognizing and adjusting to that changing reality.

    Inexplicably, there is within the church an increasingly shrill voice claiming that for the church to be relevant it must better reflect that increasingly pagan culture. Jesus and the NT authors, however, say differently… that the church must be salt and light to the world, building a community of Christ followers that stands in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. Now, one could argue that life within the Christian community demands one set of behavioral and societal norms and that the surrounding, secular community will simply take its own course. If that is the case, then we must view that Christians live as an island within the rest of the world, making missional forays into that world much as the pre-Constantinian church lived out its calling.

    Interestingly, a federal judge in Utah has just declared that civil prohibitions against polygamy are unconstitutional. Were they properly understood to be a “documented and persistent group of people [who could not] get married and [could not] gain all these rights”? What comment do Progressives offer to the polygamist understanding of marriage?

      • John says

        Except that it has everything to do with how we define marriage. Jeremy’s main post provided a series of civil constructs for how we might look at marriage. No constructs were offered for marriage as a divinely given relationship. He then stipulated that there is “one documented and persistent group of people cannot get married and cannot gain all these rights a just situation.” I’m pointing out that there is another group that have perceived themselves to be discriminated against under state and federal law and that has just gained access to the “rights” they were seeking. If marriage is primarily a civil institution to which all may enter, are there civil restrictions that should be placed on who may consent and under what circumstances? If so, what are they?

        Or is marriage an honorable estate, instituted of God (as we proclaim in our marriage service), and therefore defined on God’s terms? (If that be the case, then most all within the UMC are in general agreement , but find themselves in great disagreement in the details of how we interpret God’s terms.) Is it fundamentally a civil institution to which we add God’s blessings within the setting of a church gathering? Is it an institution that any consenting adults may enter into? Is it an institution that any consenting adults may enter into, so long as there are no more than two involved?

        • John Handy Bosma says

          Try again. You misstate the Court’s decision. The appellants won on the cohabitation provision, but they lost on the marriage license provision. Are you quite sure you can find nothing in the NT from Jesus on the polygamy topic?

          When are you going to bring up the bestiality canard?

        • John says

          In Part 2 you state, “Polygany wouldn’t work in societies with more eligible males and less social value on having multiple wives (such as ours).” But within the Utah group I mentioned, there obviously IS social value on having multiple wives, which is why they’ve been motivated to push the question in civil court. So the question remains whether polygamy (whether on the form of polygyny or polyandry) is a legitimate form of marriage in early 21st century North American culture. If so, would it be on the OT grounds you set forth in Part 2 or on some other criteria? If not, then by what criteria?

  6. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    The Bible teaches us unambiguously that to act on homosexual temptation is a sin. Now, the legal status society ascribes to homosexual relationship is not of importance to church, provided that homosexuals are not tortured in the manner of Turing or Wilde. I would not be opposed to legislation that de-sexualizes the matrimonial benefits, by allowing any groups of people living together, including celibate monks, to claim equivalent benefits. However, from the standpoint of the church, we cannot reconcile the demand to perform homosexual marriage with the Bible, or with church tradition; the words of our forefathers, such as John Chrysostom, seem to imply that the most prudent course of pastoral care is to instead lovingly counsel those dealing with homosexual temptation into how to manage their sinful urges, and sublimate such temptation into a philial love for the same gender, while also helping them to acquire a love for the opposite gender where such love is absent. This is of course a long and painful progress; the struggle against this and other forms of habitual sin is often difficult, and in some cases does lead to tragic ends, due to demonic influence, such as suicide, but this is the mission of the church: to teach people the Gospel of Christ; and that their faith might not be a dead faith, as St. James the Just warns, we must in like manner exhort them not to give themselves over to sin, but to struggle against it, even to the point of death.


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