1 in 3 Americans want a divorce between clergy and civil marriages

Priest holding a cross and Bible at wedding ceremony.
Priest holding a cross and Bible at wedding ceremony.

Photo courtesy of Andrei Zveaghintev via Shutterstock

A priest holding a cross and Bible during a wedding ceremony.

(RNS) Should clergy divorce themselves from civil marriage?

Such a church-state split — already endorsed by some Catholic and evangelical leaders — is showing surprising popularity in two new surveys released Tuesday (Dec. 2) by LifeWay Research.

In a survey of 2,000 American adults, the Nashville-based Christian research company found:

  • Nearly six in 10 Americans (59 percent) say marriage should not be “defined and regulated by the state.”
  • Nearly half (49 percent) say “Religious weddings should not be connected to the state’s definition and recognition of marriage.”
  • About a third (36 percent) say clergy should “no longer be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage.” More than half (53 percent), however, disagree.
  • Those most likely to favor a split between religious weddings and government or civil marriage include 54 percent of men, 53 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of Protestants.

LifeWay also conducted a  parallel survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors. It found that one in four favor separating the religious rites from their signature on a government-issued marriage license that makes the ceremony legally binding. This is how it’s done in many foreign countries already, but not — so far — in the United States.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, called it noteworthy that so many pastors are willing “to stop saying ‘By the power vested in me by the state … ’ during a church wedding.”

Ed Stetzer photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, called it noteworthy that so many pastors are willing “to stop saying ‘By the power vested in me by the state … ’ during a church wedding.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Christians tend to see marriage as a sacred covenant between God, the church, and the couple being married,” Stetzer said in a press release. “Many others see marriage as a contract that ties the couple together in the eyes of the state.”

The rapid expansion of gay marriage to 35 states and the District of Columbia spotlights the tension between these views. Although clergy cannot be compelled to officiate at either gay or straight weddings, many traditionalists say the trend is moving toward redefining marriage in ways they see as far from God’s intent.

Last month, the traditionalist magazine First Things launched a campaign for clergy to pledge to stop signing marriage certificates. So far, more than 330 clergy have signed the pledge.

But the “I don’t” campaign to alter the “I Do” patterns has support from liberals as well.

“The state doesn’t tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it shouldn’t tell you how to get married,” Paul Waldman wrote in The American Prospect in July.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told the nation’s Catholic bishops last month that Catholic priests might consider opting out of certifying civil marriages as a sign of “principled resistance” to growing legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“It’s hard to see how a priest or bishop could, in good conscience, sign a marriage certificate that merely identifies ‘Spouse A’ and `Spouse B,’” Chaput said in his prepared remarks.

Meanwhile, many brides and grooms are voting with their feet — away from clergy at their wedding.

For more than a decade, state offices of vital statistics have not distinguished between clergy and nonclergy wedding officiants, so there are no national statistics to prove a trend. However, an unscientific 2010 study by and found a shift away from clergy ceremonies:  31 percent of the websites’ users who married in 2010 said they used a family member or friend as their officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, the first year of the survey, according to The Washington Post.



About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • Eh. Always just seemed like a convenience thing to me. Allowing the clergy to have even the option to officiate legal marriages saves a trip to the courthouse for those that want to get legally married and religiously married. It’s no convenience for myself, being in a Faith that forbids clergy, but I can see how it could be a useful thing in general for those who have clerics.

    “The state doesn’t tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it shouldn’t tell you how to get married”

    ^ This, however, is a good point, and raises the question of why we need to have a government recognize marriages in the first place.

  • We don’t need to have them, other than it has been a tradition for all of human history.

    YOU don’t need to have one if you are willing to give up all of the rights and benefits associated with them.

    No one needs to have one, except that one of the most important rights associated with marriage is the legal creation of kinship, ESPECIALLY next of kinship.

    So, go ahead. build up a life with your partner of choice, but don’t get married. Then, when you die, your legal next of kin will have first rights to ALL that you and your partner have bu8ilt together. You say you have created legal documents that prevent that, and spent thousands of dollars to protect that life in that paperwork? Tell that to all of the gay people who created that paperwork, and then had it all nullified by the combination of a distant relative, a homophobic judge, and a law the permits it.

    Or, you can just spend $100 or a marriage license.

  • The questions as presented were inherently skewed and represented some myths concerning religion and marriage.

    There is really nothing more tired and ignorant that the argument that marriages belong solely in the province of religious authorities. Marriage has always been an institution of the state. It only became the province of religion where religion and state were one in the same.

    Marriage is a lot more than an alleged permission for procreation or “binding in the eyes of the Lord”. Such statements are insultingly reductive of the institution. Marriage is a shorthand regarded by civil and criminal law and confers rights, privileges and obligations which have absolutely nothing to do with religious belief.

    I have zero problem with clergy opting out of state licensing for being wedding officiants. They are not necessary to the process. If they think so little of their congregations that they would rather never provide marriage services rather than acknowledge civil law on the subject which DOESN’T AFFECT THEIR CHURCH IN ANY WAY, so be it. The malicious scorched earth attitude certainly does little to show the dignity and grace one expects from clergy.

  • Meh. What if clergy took more responsibility for not just spitting out information at couples, but really tried to engage them in the faith, in the local Christian community, and make connections with other young couples. And a few mentors as well.

    This strikes me as an avoidance initiative that slightly complicates life for engaged couples–the ones who have at least a minimal faith. It is sad when ministry becomes more about the ministers than about those served.

  • Most of what you say is spot on but

    “Marriage has always been an institution of the state”

    isn’t really historical. ‘Twas more of an institution of society. Pretty much all early forms of marriage had mythological roots. What likely started as a mere informal custom evolved to adopting certain traditions gradually in the various cultures. The more religious cultures probably had their traditions influenced by them, or possibly the religion was affected by the marriage traditions (for example of this, compare Spartan marriage customs to the myth of Hades and Persephone). Only once the traditions had been well established did anyone think to codify the practices in law, and thus become an institution of the state.

    Since this goes back far in prehistory, I’d think it would be impossible to tell whether-or-not marriage became associated with religion or the state first. But it existing as a institution of SOCIETY almost certainly predates both. I’d GUESS that religious association came before legal codification, though, with examples in mythology like Hades and Persephone being created to explain the marriage custom. But that, again, is moot, since it an institution of society first. The status as an institute of religion and/or the state is secondary.

  • “I’d GUESS that religious association came before legal codification,”

    I believe that marriage was entirely a civil matter in ancient rome.

  • Once people conceived the notion of leaving legacies for their children and rulership based on bloodlines, they had to figure out a way to codify personal relationships. Then came marriage. Mythology would come later to give people a shorthand as to why people did such a thing. It is far more glamorous and poetic to say that the God(s) bless the union of families than to say “I am selling my daughter off to those well off shepherds” or “its much easier than trying to conquer their lands”. 🙂

    One has to bear in mind, religion was not something separate from society or something voluntarily accepted as belief in early civilization. It was the beliefs of your people, your community, what separated you from those people living on the next hill over. Religion and society were one in the same. Legal codification and mythologizing were usually not far from each other. Hammurabi’s code even had laws concerning marriage.

  • Hi folks, Please share your view once then step aside so others — even folks you think are wrong — can have their say about my story. People feel unwelcome in the commenting section if they sense they will be attacked for their views. Thanks!

  • “…brides and grooms are voting with their feet — away from clergy at their wedding.”

    Best news I’ve heard today.
    May religion die the death it so richly deserves.

    “So far, more than 330 clergy have signed the pledge.”

    What you have here is a clutch of hysterical, snake oil scalawags.
    It is wonderful to see the clergy offering less and less.
    They started out with an non-existent product in the first place, they might as well go all the way and offer nothing else either.

  • Pre-written language nomadic societies had marriage, though. Ancient nomadic marriage traditions of those societies (the wife’s right to her own special tent where she was in control) still survives to this day encoded in the Old Testament. It enters pre-history, so it is impossible to KNOW for sure, but since religion predates written language and codified law, there is a good chance that the religious traditions intermingling with marriage traditions occurred prior to legal codification.

  • Before my wife and I said “I do,” we met at the altar alone and had about an hour of prayer time, dedicating ourselves and future plans to the Lord, asking his blessing, etc.

    After all the pictures, we then had the ceremony in front of family and friends. And before running out the door for our honeymoon, we signed a marriage certificate that took a week or so to get through the government offices.

    At what point where we actually married in the eyes of God?

  • In Rome and in the ancient world, to do something as important as marriage with all its material, social and spiritual implications required government recognition and religious observation of rites. Pagan were very religious; moderns have decided otherwise.

  • And when you look at those traditions, you see very mundane reasoning behind much of them. Mostly dealing with property (which may include the wife), family control, responsibilities for children of a union, responsibilities for children outside of such unions, traditions and customs designed to avoid spousal murder…

    Those mundane traditions, purposes and customs of marriage have always been the first and foremost in importance when considering the institution.

  • As a member of the clergy, the reason that many clergy want a separation of church and state is because many of those wishing to be married are more concerned about the party afterwards, the gown, the center aisle, dancing down the aisle, etc. When marriage is conducted in a church setting, it is about the covenant the couple is making before God. It’s not about the clergy or the guests – it’s about God. Some couples do take this to heart, but not all. Despite what others have stated, I don’t know of a single clergy member that hasn’t tried to connect those being married with the faith, other couples, mentors, and the local Christian community. Perhaps your personal experience was not good??

  • As the busiest professional Officiant in the Southern California area i have an opinion on this.
    Many couples come to me and don’t want to get married in the church either because the following reasons:
    1. They are not religious
    2. They do not want religion in their ceremony
    3. They don’t have a church they belong to
    4. They want their ceremony and Reception in the same place.
    Some couples choose a religious style ceremony other choose to have it non religious. It is not for us to choose.It is their choice.
    The challenge is that I MUST be ordained by a religious body in order to be authorized to perform the ceremony.
    Some couples who are having a non-religious wedding don’t want the word minister on the license. But that is what I HAVE to put down. If there was a way I could list something other than a clergy title it might be nice for some couples.I don’t personally care but some of my couples do and I serve them within the bounds of the laws of the state.

  • My wife and I were married in a Catholic ceremony 28 years ago.

    The role religion has played in our lives has been mostly negative.

    Priests actually told us to not use contraceptives.
    That was the single most ridiculous, STUPID and dangerous bit of nonsense. Every married couple uses contraceptives or they are absolutely nuts.

    Priests told us to ‘Tithe’ – to give a full 10% to the church! which worked great for them and very badly for parents like us who at the time were scraping to get by. I dread what this does to poor families who drink that kool-aide today.

    Churches are just expensive social clubs for gossip and delusional meditations.
    You’re better off getting married on a beach somewhere by a justice of the peace. A hundred bucks and you are FREE TO GO!

  • I’m starting to discover more and more about you Max. It’s becoming slightly more clear post after post why you stand where you do. Most of what those priests told you, you wouldn’t have gotten in the evangelical church.

    The claim that using contraceptives is a sin is found nowhere in scripture (neither explicitly nor implicitly, from my knowledge). So this was a “ridiculous, STUPID and dangerous” order that the priests gave.

    “Tithing” was a requirement in the Old Testament under the old covenant. But the 10% tithe law is done away with in the New Testament under the new covenant. So when the priest said that you must give 10%, you shouldn’t have taken this as a divine command. The New Testament teaching on tithing (or “giving”) is that one should give as his heart draws him to give. Giving then, is not a requirement for salvation or perfection, but a natural outflowing of where your heart is. In other words, giving is the effect, not the cause. Where you give and how much you give is based off of where a person’s heart is truly focused on. This is also why giving isn’t just a financial work. People, who don’t have money to give, can still give their time, other resources like property, their knowledge and expertise some field.

    It is interesting that from this experience (and I’m guessing others like it), that you made the conclusion “God does not exist”. I would be interested in how you drew “Because I received very poor advice from a catholic priest, THEREFORE God does not exist”. I would say that you are very much like me in that we both find the doctrines and traditions of the catholic church to be extremely lacking and at worse, directly false.

    I would plead that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, it not to late to go back. Giving up on Catholicism doesn’t mean giving up on Christ. And one thing I know for sure is that Christ hasn’t given up on you. Have a good day Max.