Taken alongside the court's argument that the churchy term "marriage" is irrelevant to California law and policy, it's easy to conclude that getting the church and state out of each other's way when it comes to blessing couples would be a tiny, logical next step.

This is the way it's already done in countries such as France. "A priest or an imam, or whoever's responsible, they can't legally make a wedding or marriage if the person had not previously been married by a representative of the mayor in a city hall," said Jacques de Noray, spokesman for the French consulate in San Francisco. "Since the French Revolution, there is a clear separation between the state and church." The church ceremony, he adds, "doesn't have any legal significance."

Eliminating clerics' role as government marriage agents might seem at first glance like anathema to conservative pastors. Right-wing religious groups, after all, seek to "protect marriage" from an onslaught by gays.

But churches' role as proxy municipal marriage agencies vexes clergy, no matter what denomination or belief.

In the 2007 book The New Guidebook for Pastors, Baptist theology professor James Bryant describes his decision to marry two divorcées, despite his belief that Jesus said in Matthew 19 that divorce and remarriage constituted adultery. "I decided I would go ahead and marry them, acting as an agent of the state," he wrote. "But I felt guilty about my decision."

Bryant is describing an unnecessary conflict of interest, a vestige of an ancient time when the church ran the state, and vice versa. Ending the church-state confusion in California could be a simple matter.

An obvious step is to help get the proposed initiative eliminating the word "marriage" from the state's legal lexicon on the ballot. Additionally, places of worship could begin emulating Bishop Andrus' policy and ask couples to be married at City Hall before having a religious blessing ceremony.

Nothing meaningful would be lost in translation, Andrus says. "If you attended an Episcopal church's blessing of a marriage, you would not know you were not in a full marriage service," he says. "Hymns are sung. An exchange of rings takes place. Vows are said. It's a full service. It's simply not the legal marriage. The sacrament is in the relationship. Not in the legal form. That seems straightforward to me."

The Reverend Lea Brown, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, can't join Andrus' movement because she performs mostly weddings for gay couples, who now can't have state-authorized marriages. But she says she'd be delighted if straight couples expressed solidarity by having separate secular and religious weddings.

"I think it's a brilliant idea," adds Jeff Bert, Metropolitan's associate pastor, as he marches through Civic Center with a mob of sign-waving protesters. "I've long felt that the state should get out of the marriage business."

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