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This is a little on the end of “cart before the horse,” but it’s definitely a predictable direction that legislative action can take in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when it comes to dealing with the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage. Of course, since the ruling, there has been a flurry of commentaries and stories about potential lawsuits against churches that refuse to sanctify these unions. That problem may not play the same in Pennsylvania as it will in most other states.
The commonwealth already has two forms of marriage licenses available in many counties, because our law permits self-uniting marriage licenses. Enjoy the irony if you like, but that is because of a religious belief – Pennsylvania is the Quaker state, and Quakers do not believe that a human being can stand between God and couple when they enter in a covenant of marriage. Their beliefs only permit people to witness that covenant, so we have marriage licenses that only require signatures of two witnesses. Until 2007, it was possible for a county to refuse to issue those licenses without verifying the religious beliefs of the couple, but now they cannot do that. Anyone can opt for the self-uniting license, if they are willing to pay a little more for it.
Because the difference in price isn’t significant (it’s just $10 more in the City of Philadelphia, for example), same-sex couples in Pennsylvania that might want to sue a church over refusing to sanctify a marriage will be a little difficult. If our legislature would happen to change how people get marriage licenses in the first place, those lawsuits would be impossible to start in the first place.
Now, all licenses are acquired at county or city courthouses. If our legislature would decide to change that, there couldn’t be lawsuits over churches refusing to marry anyone for any reason. Four changes to our current laws would need to happen for that to work.
First, self-uniting licenses would need to be available in all counties, and be formally granted equal status with standard marriage licenses. Second, the fees for all marriage licenses would have to be equal in each county. That means the standard license costs would undoubtedly increase, and maybe they would need to stop letting different counties charge different rates. Right now, there still may be a few counties that charge less than the others. The third change would be that standard licenses would be issued by churches, not the counties. Churches would have to pay the fees on behalf of the couples, so the counties would still get the revenue. Finally, for the fourth change, there would need to be an explicit clause in the law that would forbid the state from interfering with the churches when it comes to issuing marriage licenses. That would of course be based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution’s own prohibitions against the state interfering in religious practice.
Pennsylvania is already part way toward that solution, but there’s nothing saying that other states couldn’t follow suit. The argument against same-sex marriage has been over the sanctity of the union. There is nothing sacred about government, and self-uniting marriage licenses really are just a personal contract by another name — conversely, divorce is simply a legal term for dissolving a specific type of personal contract. The current lie being sold by the left is that the marriage equality movement is all about the legal protections and benefits given to married couples. If the laws of Pennsylvania were changed in this manner, they would have all those legal benefits. The only thing they would be forbidden from doing is forcing any church to sanctify their unions.
It’s time to start having serious talks about how to protect religious freedom, and this is one solution that will be very difficult for the left to call discriminatory, at least as far as the state is concerned. We also need to remember what churches are, and remind the public often. They are religious communities that people choose to join, because they agree with the doctrines they follow. If a person does not agree with the doctrines of a given faith, they are not entitled to force that religious community to change to meet their desires. They are free to find a community that agrees with them.