Bland but equal

Roseville couple confounded by gender-neutral marriage license

What’s in a word? Plenty, it seems, if the word has something to do with getting married. Gideon Codding and Rachel Bird last month added the words “groom” and “bride” to their new marriage license—next to the official designations “Party A” and “Party B.”

Prior to 5:01 p.m. on June 16, 2008, California’s marriage licenses identified applicants as “bride” and “groom.” The change to “Party A” and “Party B” was made by the state to comply with last May’s California Supreme Court ruling requiring an end to discrimination against same-sex marriages.

Codding and Bird tied the knot with her father, the Rev. Doug Bird, officiating at Abundant Life Fellowship in Roseville on August 16. But while they were on their honeymoon, the Rev. Bird received a letter from the Placer County clerk-recorder-registrar’s office informing him that the state would not register their marriage because the form had been altered.

So what’s the big deal with words like “bride” and “groom,” anyway? Elizabeth Freeman, a UC Davis professor and author of The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture, told SN&R that the change of the form from “bride” and “groom” to “Party A” and “Party B” effectively “strips it down to the legal contract. The former way, with bride and groom, sort of imports the document back into the religious realm.”

At issue, Freeman said, is that “marriage is one of the few places where the church and the state are really mixed up in the United States.” She noted that marriage serves as a commingling of church and state in two major ways. The first is the use of religious leaders as officiants at ceremonies, which makes them agents of the state in addition to being agents of the religious organization they represent.

Church and state are also mixed up in legislating who can or cannot get married. “When the state does something like legislate monogamy, they are actually adhering to a particular religious model. Mormons are the test case there,” Freeman said, referring to the U.S. prohibition of polygamous marriage that led to the abandonment of the practice among all but the most fundamentalist Mormon sects. In such a case, she said, the state “acts as an arm of the Church, of a certain version of Christianity, to enforce who can and cannot marry.”

Of course, the most recent example of that state enforcement of religious standards has been the prohibition of same-sex marriage. It’s the end of that prohibition that has led to the current situation for the Roseville couple.

Freeman pointed to a couple of reasons for people to cling to terms like “bride” and “groom.” She said it seemed like “the kind of place where these impulses might come from are either wanting to own something sacramental or wanting to own something of the consumer wedding tradition.

“Many of the things we think of as ‘traditional’ about weddings came from” the middle of the last century, Freeman said, referring to bridesmaids, flower girls, bachelor and bachelorette parties. “Mass culture’s celebration of the bride” is a fairly recent invention, according to Freeman. The contemporary fascination with “brides,” including the idea that she owns the day, are a product of the 20th-century rise of the wedding industry.

The terms used to describe their union are obviously important to the couple. “We want the marriage license to reflect what we are,” Codding said. “These terms are traditional. They’ve been recognized by the state for generations, and we’re not willing to surrender those terms.”

Codding suggested to SN&R that this was a personal choice rather than a political statement, but later news reports included his new father-in-law, the Rev. Bird, suggesting that other couples join in their act of protest. They’ve also been interviewed by a number of news sources, including The Sacramento Bee, and the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.

The couple’s refusal to use the required forms to license their marriage is making it impossible for Bird to legally change her name or be added to her husband’s insurance, benefits the state grants to those who are legally married. That legal relationship requires terms, as Freeman pointed out, that are different from the sacramental or consumer terms associated with weddings.

Both Codding and Bird have been married previously, and in order to get a license for a new marriage, would have needed to present valid divorce decrees. Those documents, like the state’s current marriage licenses, use gender-neutral terms: “Plaintiff” and “Respondent.”