In the wake of the SCOTUS decision that renders gay marriage legal in all 50 states, there has been a great deal of noise from both sides of the debate. Those that are for marriage equality are obviously pleased, but many Christians from various sects are less than enthusiastic, to put it mildly. Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve had our own little arguments over faith and marriage in recent years, primarily centered on “self-uniting marriage licenses.” These licenses were initially accepted in the commonwealth because of the Quakers, who believe that a marriage is a covenant between a couple and God, and that no officiant can create that agreement for them. Initially one might be asked to provide proof that at least one member of a couple wishing to get a self-uniting license believed in that faith, or other similar ones. Today, if a couple wishes to obtain such a license, it’s just a matter of verifying that the county in question issues them.
There have been issues of legalities with these licenses in other states that offer them, but since this is about resolving potential religious problems in at least Pennsylvania, this will focus on just the legalities in the commonwealth. The issue that Christians and others that are opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds are concerned with now is that the courts will next be attempting to force churches and ministers to participate in marriage ceremonies that they consider a sin. Self-uniting marriage licenses actually do boil down marriage down to what that state really considers them – personal contracts that are made legal by obtaining signatures from witnesses. The religious underpinnings do not matter in the context of protecting the rights of the people to observe their faiths, which is supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As for Pennsylvania, perhaps instead of having all marriage licenses issued at county courthouses, perhaps the commonwealth could opt for only issuing self-uniting marriage licenses in the courthouse. Other licenses could be obtained directly from the officiants. Of course there would be an argument over fees, since that could theoretically mean a loss of revenue. In the City of Philadelphia, marriage licenses are $80 for a standard one, and $90 for a self-uniting one. Perhaps it would be best to even out those fees, which means that the most likely course of action would be to increase the lower cost ones. Considering this is supposed to be a “once in a lifetime” investment, that shouldn’t upset anyone greatly. We are trying to have marriage equality, so that should include the fees, too. If the shift from the courthouse to the officiants would be made, the important point would be to clearly state in the law that the commonwealth has no control over the officiants, because of the First Amendment. All marriage licenses, regardless of where they are obtained, would be equal anyway. We’re part way there here in Pennsylvania. Perhaps it’s time to page a few members of the General Assembly and the Senate to get to work on this.