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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

A matter of faith

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, May 15, 2017 09:30 am

Well, this is certainly attention-grabbing:

A high profile Republican governor has declined to sign into law a measure that would have made his state the first to ban child marriage without exception.

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and someone who has been a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, said such a ban would conflict with religious customs. He did not specify what religions he was referring to.

The law would have banned marriage for those under 18, period. No exceptions. The minimum age in most states is also 18, but states generally list some exceptions, which Christie mentioned in his "conditional" veto, meaning he will reconsider if the legislature makes some changes. He said, for example, that judges should be able to approve marriages for some 16- and 17-year-olds, for instance 17-year-old members of the military (who can join with parental consent) and pregnant girls.

But it was this remark by the governor that is getting most of the headlines: “An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions,” Mr Christie said in a statement.

Some people, maybe even most, will read that and go, "Ah-ha, appeasing the Muslims again." But according to Unchained at Last, a group supporting the legislation, other communities and ethnic groups in the United States known to practice arranged or forced marriage include Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Sikhs and Hmongs. About 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010 in 38 of the 50 states where data was available, according to activists. 

Most arranged marriages, according to Unchained at Last, involve underage girls married to older men. The picture we all have in our heads, I know, is of the 12-year-old girl being dragged to the altar by a 50- or 60-something pervert. That's the image that gets everyone's blood boiling and leads to calls for the government to "do something, dammit."

What struck me about this story is how trivial most of the separation-of-church-and-state stories seem by comparison. Whether this church can use psychotropic drugs. Whether that religious group can kill chickens as part of its rituals. When a teacher leaves a Bible in plain view on her desk. When a community wants to put the same creche on the courthouse lawn it has put there for 50 years. Those are truly New World (or, if you will, Uptown) problems.

But this is one of those "as serious as it gets" cases. And it's a case the Supreme Court could well hear. And a lot of people might not like what the court might say. It's not just a matter of how acceptable or unacceptable a certain practice is to the community at large. What also matters is how integral the practice is to the religion in question and how long it has been seen as integral. So the silly opportunists who claim marijuana is integral to their "religion" get shot down. But if you've long used a tea with hallucinogenic properties, you might get a pass (you did in fact, based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, passed to reinstate the "compelling interest" test the Supreme Court abandoned in forbidding the use of peyote in religious ceremonies).

I refer you to Canon 983.1, which details the seal of the confessional for Catholics. If your only knowledge of the seal is from TV, the movies and books, you might have the idea that there are exceptions. Yes, we understand that a priest cannot break the seal, even if he has knowledge through the confession of who committed a serious crime. But surely he must go to the authorities if he has learned the details of a crime yet to be committed.

Well, no, actually. As the canon makes clear, the seal of the confessional is totally inviolate. It is absolutely wrong for the confessor to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever. He's a serial killer who is certainly going to kill again? Keep your mouth shut. He's a child molester, and you know who his next victim is? Stay silent. No matter what, you keep it to yourself. Oh, you could go warn the next victim that something bad might happen, but you can't tell him why you know that. Or you might tell the police to keep an eye on a certain bank at a certain time, but you can't say who told you that. Otherwise, you don't say anything to the authorities. The penalty is excommunication, which is something priests do not take lightly.

It's amazing how many cop shows get this wrong. I saw an episode of "Blue Bloods" recently, which is usually fairly accurate about police matters and also gives religion a fair shake, sine the Reagan family depicted by the show is supposed to be staunchly Catholic. Danny Reagan, the hotheaded detective of the family, is seen repeatedly browbeating a poor priest who could stop a crime in progress, if he only he would just open up. Now a cop in general wouldn't browbeat a priest like that, and a supposedly strong Catholic certainly wouldn't. (The show also gets it horribly wrong when it has the detective's nurse wife, who overheard the confession, spill the beans to her husband. But the seal of the confessional also covers lay Catholics, so she's due for an excommunication as well.)

That's because police in this country, and the criminal justice system in general, accept the seal of the confessional as valid and necessary for Catholics to freely practice their religion. Courts have most often not given the church or any of its priests any grief over it. It is as much a part of the system now as the right to remain silent or the right to have an attorney present during questioning.

Just think about that. What is a more important duty for a citizen than to cooperate with the police by volunteering information that will prevent crime and keep the community safe? And yet Catholic priests get a pass.

I don't know whether underage marriage so violates community standards that a religion shouldn't be able to use faith as an excuse to practice it. Let's just say it's up for grabs until the Supreme Court has a say.  I'm not sure refusing to cooperate with police should be protected by religion, but I'm apparently in the minority on that one.

The point is that freedom of religion — the right to practice one's religion without interference if there is no compelling societal reason to stop it — is for all of us. We can't claim it for one of our practices and then turn around and deny it to someone else for one of their practices, without at least hearing them out and weighing their claims.

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