When does a wedding become a marriage? | Nandell Palmer

Her swollen eyes had said it all. Bawling for 10 days, Kathleen literally had no tears left when I ran into her last week at a Federal Way landmark.

Failing to file relevant documents with the state registrar, she’d just found out that her church wedding 15 years ago to her “husband” was all a sham.

With President Obama recently affirming same-sex unions, coupled with Kathleen’s plight, I’m forced to explore this controversial thesis: Is marriage a sacred rite, a constitutional right or just sheer economic gains?

Marriage, in the eyes of many, is a sacrosanct ceremony between a man and woman steeped in thousands of years of tradition. While to others, marriage is nothing but a civil right between two consenting adults of same or opposite sex.

The term “holy matrimony” is a hard sell to people seeking lawful protection but have no religious allegiance attached to the institution of marriage. Wedding vows can be exchanged at City Hall, on a hospital bed, prison, or a Las Vegas drive-through in less than five minutes without a priest or rabbi officiating. No wonder some are asking, “So what’s the fuss about legalizing gay marriage?”

Does Elizabeth Taylor’s eight marriages or Kim Kardashian’s 72-hour, $20 million nuptials make marriage more casual than, say, 30 years ago?

If religious ardor is the driving force behind marriage, some will argue that there’s hardly any difference between the divorce rate of Christians and non-Christians.

While some same-sex sympathizers readily welcome equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians, they part company on the brand, marriage, saying the label should be solely reserved for a man and a woman. What if same-sex partners were to be accorded marital rights under the banner “ramirega” or “egairram” – the letters for marriage jumbled and spelled backward? Would that be a reasonable ersatz?

Not having any historical or legal antecedents to bring heft to this culture war is akin to a blind person seeing for the first time. There’s absolutely nothing new under the sun.

Long before Columbus set foot in America, the berdaches, an androgynous Native American group, were performing same-sex marriage in New Mexico. In pre-Colonial Nigeria, there were “female husbands.”

Strip marriage of its religious bells and whistles, and at its core you’ll find a legal contract. Religious leaders may marry a couple, but officialdom comes from the state.

While not all of us meat eaters can appreciate a bowl of alligator or kangaroo stew, we sure can respect other people’s gastronomic preferences inside the same restaurant.

What are the incentives that move us to act? If we could earn our degrees without taking those boring core classes, would we seek other alternatives?

Take away society’s stigma of common-law living or marriage’s legal benefits, how many of us would opt to get married instead of modeling Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Oprah and Stedman’s lifestyle?

For millennia, marital rites have been hinged on economics more than legal rights. Even in the Old Testament Bible, bride price, bargained over by men, had no input from the bride-to-be. Think Jacob, Laban and Rachel.

How many fathers do you know today that would turn over their raped daughter to her rapist for marriage? That was the biblical law. Since the girl was damaged goods and could no longer fetch a bride price, the offender was forced to marry her.

When the papal edict of 1139 forbade Catholic priests to get married, it had nothing to do with rites or rights, but everything to do with economics. Even today, upon death, priests’ estates are passed to the church, not their families.

Economically, some heterosexual couples drowning in debt are forced to divorce after decades of marriage. These people, still living under the same roof, grudgingly give up that right in lieu of medical/governmental assistance.

In fact, some churches wrestle with the idea as to how best to mitigate this growing predicament for their adherents. Some pastors are performing “covenant ceremonies” — pseudo-wedding rites — to create some semblance of marriage. But could this arrangement bump heads with church and state?

There have been many global monumental undertakings over the past 50 years that once sparked major firestorms; namely, the interracial marriage law, Stonewall uprising, in-vitro fertilization, China’s one-child policy, and Mandela’s instituting gay marriage in South Africa’s constitution.

Like the aforementioned issues, will we look back in history and see same-sex marriage as a non-issue or an aberration? Only time will tell.

The president’s polity is no doubt shaped by his late mother’s anthropological leanings. Just a stone’s throw away from where she attended high school on Mercer Island, a 24-year-old Korean-American man opined:

“The thing that makes us great in America is synthesis. The things that separate us also unite us.”

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