GUESTWORDS: Raise High the Roof Beam

By Nancy M. Lederman

    Now that New York has given the legal go-ahead to same-sex marriages, I should be busy this fall. As a Universal Life Church minister and authorized marriage officiant in the state, I’ll be officiating at weddings of gay and lesbian friends eager to tie the knot.
    My ordination wasn’t planned. Nor does it reflect any religious belief on my part. Last year, Philip and Miriam, two young friends, asked me to preside at their wedding. Unfortunately, my authority as an administrative law judge was limited to city and state tribunals. New York’s Domestic Relations Law specifies a laundry list of magistrates, judges, and clergy who can perform weddings. For some reason, it bans ship captains but allows federal administrative judges to officiate at ceremonies. Nevertheless, although I conduct legal hearings and render decisions on a daily basis, the law does not authorize me to solemnize a marriage.
    Technology provided a solution. I went online and with a few clicks I gained a new title, courtesy of the Universal Life Church. The U.L.C. proclaims a belief that all faiths are best served by freedom and choice and removes barriers to performing wedding ceremonies by ordaining all comers, from mainstream Christians and Jews to atheists and pagans. Even better, it was free. For a few extra dollars, I obtained an ordination certificate and a wallet-size ID card. The Web site boasts 20 million ordained ministers worldwide, and a quick glance at the Sunday wedding announcements in The Times will disclose a few of my fellow ministers.
    So last summer, with the East River and the spires of Manhattan behind me, and in front of a crowd that included Episcopalians, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists, I put my minister’s standing to good use and conducted my first wedding. As a newbie, I had done my research. I discussed the origin of the epithalamium — the Greek wedding song — and the significance of the huppah under which the couple stood. I quoted from the Song of Songs and Supreme Court decisions. I recited passages from Sappho, William Carlos Williams, and Pete Seeger. Philip and Miriam recited their vows, I signed the license, and they were wed.
    I thought my performance would be a one-shot affair, but the recent legislation forced me to re-examine my role. The law requires only a single officiant and two witnesses. As I said when I stood in front of Philip and Miriam, a marriage ceremony is about more than the law. It’s about a community of people who witness and celebrate a couple’s union, offering welcome and support to the newly betrothed pair, and by their participation signal a stake in the marriage that continues beyond the rice and reception.
    While clergy and magistrates remain the norm, other states allow a wider pool of qualified persons from which a couple can select. Occasionally an out-of-state wedding reported in The Times will note the designation of the bride’s grandfather or the bridegroom’s college roommate to conduct the wedding. In Florida and South Carolina, a notary public can perform a wedding ceremony, while in California and Massachusetts, a friend or family member can be designated for the event. Colorado and Pennsylvania go a step further, offering couples a self-uniting program whereby they can solemnize their own marriages.
    Is there any reason for New York to persist in limiting its officiant list to public officials and religious leaders? Online ordination may not be an acceptable approach for everyone, but neither should couples be forced to hire strangers to perform this most personal and profound of ceremonies.
    Why not spread the joy of the recent legislation wide to accommodate the thousands of couples who seek to formalize their union standing before family and friends? Certainly the state that has authorized same-sex marriage should allow its own administrative judges to do what their federal counterparts can. And why not a friend or relative designated by the couple for just that purpose? Let others be allowed to “officiate,” to stand with a community of family and friends as a couple, straight or gay, express their commitment and love and are ushered into wedlock.
    In the words of Sappho, our first poet to celebrate marriage, “Raise high the roof beam! High up, carpenters! Sing the wedding song!”


    Nancy M. Lederman, who has a house in Springs, is a lawyer, judge, and author. She has presided over more than 2,000 hearings and one wedding.