In My Own Words: Church, state and marriage

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Do you think two Jews should have the right to marry? This is not a trick question. I’m not asking about LGBTQ marriages or anything controversial (at least, not yet). What I want to know is simple: Are you willing to risk that a governmental official will refuse to allow you, your children or your grandchildren the right to marry another Jew because it is against their religion to allow those who refuse to recognize Christ as their savior the ability to marry and have children. Believe it or not, I’m not writing about a future dystopia, but the possibility of this occurring in the United States right now. 

Before going into more detail about this potential problem, I need to differentiate between clergy who perform religious marriages and governmental officials (clerks) whose salary is paid by our taxes. Clergy have always been allowed to choose which couples they marry. That’s because in the U.S. there are other options: a different clergy person, a justice of the peace, a judge, etc. But there is only one legal place to purchase a wedding license that is recognized by state and federal governments: that’s usually the office of a town or county clerk. There is no religious aspect to that job: no religious requirements, no ethical or moral ones except to follow state and federal laws that allow people to marry.

A bill passed recently by the Tennessee House of Representatives would change that. Even if this bill doesn’t become a law, it’s important to note that a legislative body in the United States would allow county clerks to refuse to certify marriage licenses – which is a requirement of their job – because they have religious objections to the marriage. It’s clear that this is aimed at LGBTQ and transgender couples, but its implications are far wider. These clerks could also refuse to certify interfaith marriages or interracial marriages. That’s right: they could refuse to certify the marriage license of a white person and a Black person. No one has yet suggested they would refuse to do so for two Jews, but there is nothing that would prevent them from doing so. 

Think this is farfetched? Ten years ago, I would have scoffed at the suggestion. But, then again, if you asked me 10 years ago if the current rise in antisemitism would have taken place, I would have probably said no. If you asked me whether buildings containing Jewish organizations would have to be kept locked, I would have said no. If you asked whether I would feel the need to take an active shooter training, again my answer would have been no. If you asked whether I would worry that someone would open fire and kill congregants attending a religious service (Christian, Muslim or Jewish), I would have said no. But that was before the Tree of Life shooting, the Poway synagogue shooting, the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis and the February shootings of Orthodox Jews near synagogues in Los Angeles.

Am I being alarmist? Maybe, but let me ask you one thing: Do you want to take that chance? Jews have been systematically and violently persecuted in every country in which they’ve lived – that is, except for the United States. There’s nothing to stop it here, though, if we sit back and let it happen. Not worried about this because LGBTQ, transgendered people and Black citizens are first on the line? Who do you think is going to stand up for you, if you don’t stand up for them?