Temple Marriage, Civil Marriage, and my marriage

When I got married — back in 2000 — the “gay marriage” issue was hardly on my radar. Ever since reading Stephen J. Gould’s Creation Myths of Cooperstown essay (back in my BYU days), I’ve tended to be wary of “just-so stories” that give an instantaneous creation point to something which, in reality, evolved over time. Naturally, I didn’t think highly of the idea that a holy man can suddenly create a marriage where none had existed before — just by saying the right magic words! For me, the marriage ceremony was merely one of the more interesting steps in the process of forming a family in that same way that conception, “quickening,” and birth are some of the more interesting steps in the process of forming a new mammalian individual.

Since my husband and I are from different countries, there was absolutely no question of rejecting legal marriage — we needed the protection of legal marriage to be sure to have the right to reside in the same country together. Even without that motivation, I’m sure we would have gone with legal marriage anyway, but the reason I mentioned gay marriage above is that — like many straight people on the side of marriage equality — I value the right to legal marriage more as a consequence of the fight to extend that right to all. But “what does that have to do with the Temple Wedding Petition?” you ask.

Well, perversely, my husband and I did not encourage our families to attend our civil marriage ceremony — the one in the Princeton municipal building nine years ago — that declared us legally married. If they’d insisted on flying in for it, we would have welcomed them to attend the ceremony (and to the little party and dinner for our handful of local friends), but we told them that the real party was the one we’d planned in France (a month later) — so don’t miss that one!

It was quite the party!

Having been raised Mormon, I had no attachment to the image of walking down the aisle of a decked-out church to say “I do” before a preacher, and my husband is a private enough individual that he wasn’t enamored of the idea of making a public statement of intimate sentiments. So we declared our commitment before our community in the way that we wanted to — by throwing a big party that everyone knew was a wedding reception, but didn’t include any particular ceremony.

That’s just us, though.

Different parts of the marriage ceremony and ritual have different meanings to different couples. Signing the legal contract is not necessarily identical with declaring your commitment in front of your families and community. I learned this by marrying a Frenchman, and got a lesson in how cultures can vary:

When we had our civil marriage at the municipal building, our witnesses were a French couple (friends of my husband from the university). I was surprised when they took pictures of everyone signing the legal contract. It had never occurred to me that it would be interesting to take pictures of people signing a contract, but (as I learned) it makes perfect sense in French culture because when the official, the couple, and the witnesses sign the paper — that’s what makes the marriage legal.

Since then, I’ve come to really like the French system where the legal ceremony and the religious ceremony are separate. Catholicism is the state religion, but they don’t deputize priests to sign legal contracts because that’s not their job — legal contracts fall under the jurisdiction of the courts and the Mayor. (Consequently, the state doesn’t have to concern itself with who is and isn’t ecclesiastically qualified to pronounce people married before God.)

I saw the beauty of this system in action a few years ago when a pair of friend of ours — devout French Catholics — were married. City Hall was right next door to the church, so the couple had their civil service, and then they and the guests all went to the church for the wedding mass. Often people pick the same wedding party for both ceremonies, but this couple decided to have their atheist and/or Jewish friends (including me!) serve as witnesses to the civil proceedings, and had their Catholic friends participate in the church wedding. It was beautiful, it was moving, and it was a way to include their entire community in their declaration of their commitment.

Different couples and different families have different expectations about how they’d like to declare their union before God, the law, and their community. I can understand (and relate to on a personal level) the sentiment that it’s not necessarily necessary to have your family on hand to witness “the moment of creation of your marriage” whatever that may mean to you. But in countries where a separate civil ceremony is required (like in France), the CoJCoL-dS allows the couple to have a temple wedding right afterward, with no penalty. So there’s no doctrinal obstruction to allowing couples in the U.S. to do the same if they so desire.

My Catholic friends didn’t value their church wedding any less just because they signed the legal papers before the Mayor. Similarly, LDS couples should have the opportunity to separate the mortal, legal contract step from the making of celestial covenants before God.


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at @chanson@social.linux.pizza or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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14 Responses

  1. Steve EM says:

    Trs bon.

    Sur une question latrale, j’aime aussi les travaux de dfunt Stephen Jay Gould, et vous demandez avec bont d’crire son nom correctement. Merci en avance. Vous tes certainement bienvenu pour enlever ce commentaire.

    S’il vous plat pardonner des erreurs avec mon franais. C’est trente ans depuis ma mission au Sud de France.

  2. LdChino says:

    Those happy photos and this post brought back memories of our San Francisco wedding … just us, my two youngest sisters, and a Justice of the Peace. Lovely. You make a great case for affording LDS couples everywhere the chance to enjoy a separate civil ceremony – it really can be such a nice and memorable experience, and after all these years, the photos from our formal Taiwan wedding banquet are tucked away somewhere, but it’s reminders of that weekend in SF that we keep on display around the house.

  3. chanson says:

    Steve — C’est drle, j’avais controll l’orthographe de son nom, mais je n’ai pas pens faire attention ses prnoms… 😉

    LdChino — Yeah, it was really nice having the two separate ceremonies on opposite sides of the ocean like that. Of course the photos I posted were from our big reception in France that we invited everyone to (even though I was wearing a red-orange dress).

  4. Holly says:

    OK, I realize this isn’t the point, but those photos are FABULOUS! You two made one hot couple! No wonder your kids are so cute.

  5. aerin says:

    Wish I could have made it to your reception…it does look like a good time.

    As far as a temple ceremony vs. a ceremony with family here in the U.S. – I think it’s just cultural. Then you also have stories like the one I read recently from Spencer W. Kimball, about a couple who got married in a church and was killed driving to the temple (they won’t be together in eternity was the moral of the story, because they didn’t get married in the temple FIRST). I really don’t know what to make of that story. I personally don’t feel fear tactics are an honest or up front way to promote behavior.

  6. aerin says:

    P.S. this is the link/excerpt that I recently read – I believe if you search for this lesson on the official website you can find it.

    Lesson 15: Temple Marriage, Young Women Manual 2, 54:

    President Spencer W. Kimball told the following true story:

    A few years ago a young couple who lived in northern Utah came to Salt Lake City for their marriage. They did not want to bother with a temple marriage, or perhaps they did not feel worthy. At any rate, they had a civil marriage. After the marriage they got into their automobile and drove north to their home for a wedding reception. On their way home they had an accident, and when the wreckage was cleared, there was a dead man and a dead young woman. They had been married only an hour or two. Their marriage was ended. They thought they loved each other. They wanted to live together forever, but they did not live the commandments that would make that possible. So death came in and closed that career. They may have been good young people; I dont know. But they will be angels in heaven if they are. They will not be gods and goddesses and priests and priestesses because they did not fulfill the commandments and do the things that were required at their hands.

    Sometimes we have people who say, Oh, someday I will go to the temple. But I am not quite ready yet. And if I die, somebody can do the work for me in the temple. And that should be made very clear to all of us. The temples are for the living and for the dead only when the work could not have been done. Do you think that the Lord will be mocked and give to this young couple who ignored him, give them the blessings? The Lord said, For all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead. (D&C 132:7) (in Conference Report, Japan Area Conference 1975, pp. 6162).

  7. aerin: Let’s assume they didn’t feel worthy to have a temple marriage. How would that be “mocking the Lord?” Kimball basically paints this dead couple in the worst possible light to make his point, which is beyond using fear tactics. It’s unethical. (IMO)

    chanson: Hi….what’s your PhD in? I asked you to review my book after I found your review of Langford’s, and b/c I liked your feminist thoughts. But now I realize I know nothing about you….including what your Mormon “status” is: active, inactive, ex?

  8. Steve EM says:


    Thanks for the correction. I know its off topic, but I am very grateful to Gould for coming off his Harvard tower and taking the time to explain evolution to a lay audience, including his own theories modifying orthodox Darwinism. So many are so much better informed because of Gould. When he was alive it didn’t bother me most people misspelled his first name. Now that he’s dead it does bother me even though I cant articulate why. Thanks again.

  9. Steve EM says:


    Thanks for finding that quote. What more evidence do we need that SWK was a false prophet?

  10. SM says:

    My comments is regarding the story from Kimball about the couple who died before being sealed in the temple.

    As I understand it, the LDS Church believes in doing proxy work for the dead. Surely, the family of the deceased couple would have gone to the temple to perform the sealing ordinance vicariously. Who are we to judge as Kimball did of this couple who died. What a shame that he wasn’t more compassionate and human.

    Perhaps the couple chose to have a civil marriage first so all loved ones could attend. It matters not what their motive was for entering into a civil marriage contract first. What is disturbing is that the Church promotes these kinds of stories to instill fear into couples who choose anything other than what the Church would have the couple choose.

    Does is story suggest that all non-members who enter into a civil marriage contract first are doomed to be angels only in the hereafter? It’s absurd and arrogant and shows a spiritual superiority.

    The policy needs to be changed to LDS couples can have a free moral choice without the fear of stigma attached to it by the Church.

  11. Jean Bodie says:

    I appreciated your insightful comments Chanson; very timely for us with the temple wedding petition.
    The story by Spencer Kimball is so totally out there in so many ways. I was taught that one of the main purposes of the temple was to perform ordinances for our dead loved ones. Tell me why that couple could not be sealed by proxy? Would loving leaders or a just god say, “Oh no, you didn’t do it my/our way, so you will never be a husband and wife for all eternity.”????

    One of the posters mentioned fear tactics and that is all this was – scare them straight.

    I really, really do NOT have any concerns about people who believe it and want to have a temple wedding, but no matter how badly they try not to see it, it is really partly a civil agreement. They have to get a marriage license first and the Church CANNOT give them that. The Church cannot give them a divorce; there are forces more powerful than the church and we are subject to them. The Church lobbies its members and government to change laws; why should we NOT ask the Church to change policies which can have devastating effects on those who are affected. Loved ones should not (or no faith) by a Church edict. Churches cannot legislate obedience but they can sure make couples suffer for not being so.

  12. aerin says:

    #10 – Steve – I don’t see SWK as a false prophet, any more than I believe there are true prophets who speak for God. I think it must be very difficult for faithful LDS members to reconcile their faith with fear-mongering.

    Instead of simply putting forth the belief that God wants humans to marry in the temple, there also has to be the message that if you don’t marry in the temple, there might be negative consequences. Some people might then choose to live their lives because of the positive beliefs (that they believe God wants them to marry in the temple first) but also out of fear that they won’t be with their loved one after death.

    I found that there was a great deal of focus on consequences (particularly eternal consequences) growing up LDS instead of what each person could do to be a better person today.

  13. chanson says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    I’ve been on the road (and off the Internet) for three days, so that’s why you haven’t heard from me lately. Now I’m “home for the holidays” with my family in MN.

    Alan — my PhD is in Mathematics. As soon as I finished it, however, I switched to software engineering.

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