Yesterday afternoon aboard a boat sailing the canals of Amsterdam, Mayor Job Cohen performed five marriages in a row, each between a Dutch and an American citizen. The nuptials have been timed to celebrate the 400-year-long cultural connection between Old Amsterdam and Nieuw Amsterdam (New York).
There will be a half-million witnesses on hand. Each of the couples are gay or lesbian and the weddings are the centerpiece of the country's gay pride celebration. The whole affair is billed simply as "I do. I Amsterdam." Practically speaking, it is likely to be the largest wedding party — ever.
That these marriages should occur in the Netherlands is by now hardly notable here, given that the country was the first to sanction civil marriage between gays and lesbians on April 1, 2001. This year, the city chose to marry Dutch and American couples in such a big way to make a statement.
Burgomaster Cohen performed those pioneering marriages early in his term. Owing to his continuing popularity and reelection, he is still at it nearly a decade later. 'êThe message is, first, equal rights. I was involved early in getting gay rights into law, and it was a hell of a job to get it done,'ê says Cohen. 'êWhen we started almost ten years ago there was nowhere else that gays could marry, and now we see it in many places around the world, with still so many more countries to go.'ê
Dutch citizen Hans Heijnis, who was married yesterday to American Ira Siff, puts the Dutch message to America far more plainly: 'êWake up.'ê
Watching the scene unfold in Amsterdam I was struck by the realization that America, mired in its tedious state-by-state skirmishes of the gay marriage wars, has managed to lose sight of one fundamental aspect of all marriages, be they gay or straight: the primacy of civil marriage over religious marriage. That fact has been part of America's cultural and legal history for more than 400 years, thanks to the Dutch.
This stretches deep into our history, to the Pilgrims and before. In fact, it reaches back to the Netherlands and the small university town of Leiden where the Pilgrims spent 11 years in exile before they set sail for for the New World aboard the Mayflower. The custom of civil marriage as practiced in the Netherlands was so admired by the Pilgrims that they brought it to America. It is a hallmark of what would ultimately become America's radical and successful notion of separating Church and State.
It's likely no Pilgrim would comprehend the idea of gay people, gay relationships, or gay marriage any more than they might comprehend computers, jetliners, or cell phones. But they would surely recognize and embrace the idea that marriage is a civil covenant first and only a religious one after that.
The dual nature of marriage — the reality that it can be both a civil act and also a religious one for those who choose it to be — is so ingrained into our consciousness that most of us fail to notice the distinction of those two elements. Yet the law and many religions have always differed when it comes to how they treat marriage. For example, the law allows divorce but Catholicism has its own ways of annulment. Legally, the law prevails. Likewise some couples elect to have only a church wedding but not a civil one in order to keep their legal and property affairs separate. Again the law prevails over the particulars of the religion. And of course virtually all jurisdictions require the civil licensing of a marriage in order for it to be legally honored.
Here in Amsterdam, for over four centuries now, marriage has been primarily a civil act, required to be performed first in the stadhuis (City Hall) and only after to be solemnized by the religion of one's choosing, or not at all. For nearly the last decade this has been true here for gay and lesbian citizens too. Judging by the diversity and energy of the half million people from all walks of life who lined the canals to get a glimpse of today's monumental wedding party, both this country and the civil institution of marriage are all the stronger for it.