Illicit Uses of Solemnity

If state officials in New York have their way even "solemnizing" a gay marriage would be illegal.

Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey are believed to be the first clergy members in the country to be prosecuted for marrying gay couples. The women were charged in March with solemnizing 13 marriages for couples without a license in the village of New Paltz.

The funny thing about this is that UU ministers have been performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for years. At least since 1984 when the Unitarian-Universalist Association passed a resolution calling for "the use of 'services of union' to recognize committed same-sex relationships." I suspect individual churches and ministers were likely performing the ceremonies even earlier.

So why the backlash now? Why attempt to criminalize a ceremony that does not involve state licenses from an organization that has nothing to do with the state?

Calling a private organization's ceremonies and attempts to "solemnize" gay unions a crime is akin to a thoughtcrime. They want to make it illegal for anyone to treat gay unions with any measure of seriousness and respect. In any case creating a solemn occasion and event through which gay couples can exchange vows can only be illegal if the state thinks it should be the ultimate arbitrator and distributor of solemnity.

In which case it is lucky for us that they do not have a problem with funeral ceremonies, memorial services, communions, bar mitzvahs, private graduation ceremonies, baptism, and other solemn rituals that mark major events in our lives.

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Why attempt to criminalize a

Why attempt to criminalize a ceremony that does not involve state licenses from an organization that has nothing to do with the state?

I share the outrage, but Rainbough basically has it exactly backwards...

The unfortunate problem is that, since marriage is a legal status and not just a ceremony, to confer that status "illegally" should, arguably, constitute criminal conduct, no different than, say, providing forged drivers licenses. The clergy members' actions do involve licenses (i.e., the clergy member ensures the proper signatures/witnesses/etc.) and have everything to do with the state -- they are essentially civil servants within this context.

One way around this could be to remove the legal aspect of the marriage license from the religious aspect. In other words, the only legally binding marriage act (i.e., the only way you could get a bonafide marriage license) would be a civil marriage before a judge/clerk/mayor/etc. (ship's captain?). Then, after the legal ceremony, the couple would be free to engage in whatever religious/spiritual ceremony they want, or choose not to. The clergymember, now detached from the license itself, could not possibly face any criminal charge.

This would also disarm much of the radical right's argument against gay marriage, since they would be free to deny ceremonies to anyone without fear of litigation (since there would be no state action with respect to their discrimination/bigotry).

This may or may not be a quirk of NYS law, not sure.

KipEsquire, The relations


The relations an individual voluntarily undertakes with another is not anyone else's business, period. This is the same issue as minimum wage. What right have I to tell my neighbor what relationships they can or can't have?

KipEsquire, Clergy are not


Clergy are not civil servants or other operatives of the state defacto or otherwise. They cannot be considered civil servants or agents of the state of any sort when functioning in their professional capacity as clergymen because this would violate the first amendment. We call this separation of church and state.

UU ministers are not conferring any legal status onto these couples. There is no law, and no license that makes them legally married, nor could they confer such a status while functioning simultaneously as clergy for their church. What they are doing is creating a private ceremony through which these couples can express their vows before friends and family and mark the occasion and their commitment to one another.

The best way to get rid of the controversy of "gay marriage" is to get rid of state marriage licenses entirely and make marriages entirely an issue of private ceremonies, and private contracts. The government's only role would be in enforcing contracts should disputes arise.

Right now the only way to get a "bonafide marriage license" is through some state agency. There is no UU minister on this planet that has issued state marriage licenses to same-sex couples (not unless the mayor of San Francisco is UU, and that I doubt).

Rainbough, at least in NYS,

Rainbough, at least in NYS, you're simply not correct, and I think you might be getting a little consumed by wordplay.

The person who (conducts/performs/officiates/whatever) the marriage is the one who (issues/certifies/solemnifies/whatever) the (marriage license / affidavit / legal document / whatever). The UUA website itself acknowleges that the ministers are issuing affidavits (which are secular, not ecclesiastical, documents).

The ceremony UU ministers have been performing is not what is now getting them into trouble, the affidavit is. If the affidavit is a priori invalid because the intended spouses cannot legally marry, then when the clergy member (insert verb here) the (insert noun here), he could, under NYS law, be engaging in criminal conduct.

The First Amendment is a total non sequitur here, sorry. No individual church or religious viewpoint is being established, supported or discriminated against.

Again, marriage is a legal status, and the state can impose limitations on the conferral of that status when justified (our noble fight for equal rights is over what should be "justified").

Please don't get me wrong. I think the idea of prosecuting these ministers stinks, and I'm thrilled that the charges were dismissed. My only point is that there was a viable legal basis for the prosecution -- not that it was morally right or politically smart.

Conferring a legal status

Conferring a legal status while simultaneously performing a religious ceremony would "respect an establishment of religion." You may disagree on this point but it seems to be a clear violation of the separation of church and state to me. You also might consider looking up the term "non sequitur" as it means that some reasoning or conclusion does not follow from the premises given, and not simply that you disagree with the conclusion.

Keep in mind that the first amendment is not about "establishing religion" but about the government "respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Also no one is playing with words here. My meaning has been clear and as precise as I can make it. If you take issue with some word usage feel free to point it out, as for being "consumed by wordplay" I cannot fathom what you mean in this context. If you think I am wrong about the laws themselves that is fine, but that is far different than implying that one is tricking themselves with their own word usage. I consider such an assertion a subtle attempt at ad hominem but I will presume that that meaning was unintentional.

Perhaps there is some loophole in NYS law that I am unaware of that these ministers were exploiting. That seems to be the case and I am not intimately familiar with New York law. I was responding to a specific article that did not include any information regarding signed affidavits and that said explicitly that they were arrested for simply performing the ceremonies. If you recall from the article: "State officials have said same-sex ceremonies violate state law."

My intial point still remains that simply performing the ceremony as UU ministers do in other states does not confer any legal status, and that it is not the state's business what ceremonies private organizations perform on their own time. As you have said what has actually happened in New York is that these ministers went a step further than performing the ceremony and signed affidavits claiming that they considered them legal marriages.

This also seems like a silly thing to make illegal since they are merely the declarations of individual ministers and need not carry any legal weight. However since the case has already been overturned I suspect the courts agree with me.

And one other thing the term

And one other thing the term "solemnizing" should not be used as a synonym for a government official certifying or officiating an event. Solemnity is not something the government can have any exclusive purview over.

Also these ministers did not issue a government license.

Rainbough: I agree that the


I agree that the most sensible solution is getting governments out of the marriage business altogether.

Marriage is a contract between two people and whatever god they choose to worship. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The article that was linked

The article that was linked in this post isn't very clear. I can't tell if the ministers were simply performing a religious ceremony or if they attempted to give some legal recognition to the marriage. That seems to be the only point of disagreement here. If the ministers tried to grant legal recognition to a marriage that they knew the law did not intend to recognize, then state intervention is reasonable. If the state is interfering in purely religious ceremonies (which I doubt) then the intervention would be inappropriate.

What the ministers did was

What the ministers did was sign affidavits that said they considered the marriages to be legally binding. These would only carry legal weight in the sense that when one signs an affidavit they are under oath. Effectively all they were were the personal opinions of the ministers that they were swearing to be true. This would not confer the legal status of marriage on those they performed the ceremonies for. Because the ministers are not agents of the state they do not have the power to do anything but declare that they consider the marriages to be legal. They cannot make them legal or confer legality onto them.

It is not and cannot be illegal to sign affidavits regarding one's own opinion provided that it is truly one's opinion. The only requirment of affidavits is that they be true. Lying on an affidavit is equivalent to committing perjury.

Ultimately the only legal weight that affidavits have is that they can be used in court, and be considered testimony and/or evidence since their authors are under oath. I believe the state only pursued this because it occurred shortly after the mayor of the same town stopped issuing licenses to same-sex couples after the governor ordered him to stop. If you recall this action caught national attention.

UUA's site has more info. The state claimed that they had to pursue this because the ministers declared their intent to perform a civil ceremony instead of simply a religious ceremony thus using the power invested in them by New York to perform civil ceremonies.

The issue isn't that they made these legal through declarations since technically no marriage is recognized without a state license (unless there are common-law marriage statutes in that state). The issue is that the state considers the ceremonies they performed to be "civil ceremonies."

Marriage as a "legal status" is nonsense. It's a personal committment and should remain a personal issue, and not a status to be vied for. If the state doesn't like ministers declaring couples "legally married," its simply because they want to be the one's holding the reigns regarding who is and isn't married.