Is a marriage license just a piece of paper?

As a Universal Life Church minister, I could help my friend get a foreign work visa. Should I sign?

Published March 10, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

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Dear Cary,

I am an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church (by filling out an online form). I just did this so I could sign my sister's wedding license a few years ago, a decision that didn't trouble me in the least. If it matters, I am a confirmed atheist.

One of my best friends recently asked if I would sign her marriage license for her and her boyfriend so she could move to his country and work, because she was not able to get a work visa. They are planning to get married in a few years, but aren't currently yet engaged, and the guy isn't "ready" to be engaged.

Part of me is like, who cares, it's just a piece of paper, they're adults, why shouldn't I just be nice and help my friend? Would I really feel that responsible if they eventually broke up?

The other part of me asks, If they're not willing to be engaged, then are they really ready to be married? And it's a serious business. But if I don't do it, they'll probably just get somebody else to do it; it'll just hurt their feelings and our friendship.

When I got married, my husband and I had to have an interview with the Unitarian minister, which was kind of annoying, but I thought it was prudent on his part to make sure he wasn't joining two people who shouldn't be joined. But I don't feel authorized to play that role with my friend.

I guess I'm leaning toward doing it. Should I sign it or not, and if I do it, should I require anything of them?

A Reluctant Minister

Dear Reluctant Minister,

The government of the country she wants to work in has requirements all alien workers must meet. Are you are helping her meet those requirements or get around those requirements? If you are helping her to meet them, i.e., if she must be married and you are helping her to get married, then what could be wrong with that? But if you are helping her only to appear to be married, then you are helping her deceive the government.

Governments should be deceived only for good reason. For instance, it can be noble to help people flee repressive governments; it can be noble to help people in unique circumstances that bureaucratic requirements do not recognize. But it ought not be done cavalierly. Governments have great power. It is not wise to trifle with them.

Governments have the right to maintain their borders and to say who may and may not come and live and work in their countries. This right is imperfectly executed, true, but that does not mean that it is a trivial right.

Is there some reason that the government prohibition against unmarried alien workers should not apply to your friend? What is the argument, moral or personal, for doing what you contemplate?

The great struggle going on now in the United States about who may and may not get legally married shows us that a marriage license is anything but just a piece of paper. It is, in fact, a document of profound significance.

Furthermore, the idea of any legal document being "just a piece of paper" has relevance to our current economic situation. Each problem mortgage was supposed to represent a reasonable expectation that it would be paid. Each was supposed to reflect reality and informed agreement. Each was supposed to represent a solemn agreement between two rational parties acting in good faith. And that is the problem with thinking of licenses and contracts as "just pieces of paper." Each "piece of paper" is actually an agreement, a promise made in good faith. Civilization is a vast web of trust, of billions upon billions of individual agreements. The sum of these billions and billions of individual agreements is a system that "works."

Right now, financially, we have a system that "doesn't work." It doesn't work because so many of those individual little agreements were treated like "just pieces of paper," instead of solemn promises.

So I'm all for solemn promises. If you believe that your friend is making a solemn promise, and that's what this little piece of paper represents, then by all means help her. But if she just wants a "piece of paper" to be used as a tool to deceive, or get around requirements, well, then I would just tell your friend that even though your ordination comes from the Universal Life Church, you still have some integrity, and there's no such thing as "just a piece of paper."


What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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