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“This Ceremony Was Not Sanctioned”: Gay Marriage at Princeton

With the policy that young lovers of the same sex may no longer sign the marriage register and that Michael Beer and Jason Rudy will have a retractory asterisk placed by their entry, neither side of the aisle gets what it wants. … No one who has attended ours, the most pragmatic of all universities, should be surprised. –Micah Weinberg ’98, “Stuck in the Middle of the Road,”  Progressive Review, November 1997

Eighteen years ago today, the first same-sex wedding was held in the Princeton University Chapel. Gay marriage was not legal in New Jersey (nor anywhere in the nation) so the ceremony was a symbolic one rather than a legally binding contract. The couple were both Princetonians. Michael Beer earned his Princeton degree in 1995 and had been a graduate student in plasma physics when he met Jason Rudy ’97, an English major. They had begun dating three years prior to the event and had been living together for two. Knowing that the marriage would not be legally recognized, Rudy told the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “With the exception of a stronger sense of commitment and emotional security, opening a joint bank account, and getting a new set of towels, nothing much will change.”

Editorial cartoon, Progressive Review, November 1997.

When news of their plans to marry in the Chapel appeared, it invited heavy criticism for the Assistant Dean of Religious Life, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, who performed the ceremony. Though primarily concerned with the precedent set by having a same-sex wedding in the Chapel, another issue that troubled some students and alumni was that Beer and Rudy were atheists, while the wedding was heavily laden with the trappings of Christian tradition. Other responses were supportive of Morrow and of the couple.

Ultimately, the controversy resulted in a new policy for weddings in the Chapel. Although same-sex couples would be given use of the Chapel for weddings, they would no longer be permitted to sign the marriage register, because their marriages were “not sanctioned by the State of New Jersey or by any ecclesiastical organization.” Princeton would also not refer to these unions as “marriages.” Further, a note would be placed in the register for the page where Beer and Rudy had signed to indicate that their marriage was similarly “not sanctioned.”

Entry for Jason Rudy and Michael Beer, Princeton University Chapel Marriage Register. Note that several lines have been whited out for the couple (i.e., “Bride,” “Groom,” etc.) in addition to the sentence about the ceremony not being sanctioned (click to enlarge). Office of the Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel Records (AC144).

We present here a range of voices from within archival records in response to these events, reflective of Princeton’s varied opinions on same-sex couplings:

Morrow sneers at the religious beliefs that the Chapel was built to support and accommodate. … She ought to resign … –Elizabeth Stevenson Green ’84, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

Morrow has soiled the sacred work of Princeton’s Christian founders and its long line of faithful Chapel deans. –R. H. Van Fossen, Jr. ’63, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

…my association with Princeton as an alumnus forces me to support and condone an act that is illegal and contrary to community standards. The trustees and administrators who approved this act of intolerance should give long and prayerful thought to their actions and the effect that it will have on the future of Princeton. –Carson C. Peck, Jr., ’46, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

The use of the Chapel for a same-sex “marriage” shows contempt for God’s word, Princeton’s honor, and the law of the land The sanctioning of this mockery of marriage is in direct opposition to God… –William R. MacIlvaine ’52, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

The good Reverend John Witherspoon must be doing 350 r.p.m. in his grave. –T. James Binder ’77,  letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

Most members of the university community would understand, and some would even support, the marriage of two homosexual atheists in a solemn secular setting such as Prospect House or the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall by a chaplain who had undertaken their pastoral care. But a marriage by a Christian minister of two men opposed to any religion, in the most symbolically religious place on campus, trivializes the sacred. –Thomas A. Pyle ’76, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

Shouldn’t we practice some of the Christian charity we profess? Perhaps the decision of these atheists to marry in the Chapel wasn’t meant to insult religion or marriage, but expressed their need for spiritual as well as temporal support. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? What if this ritual [in] that beautiful sanctuary were to inspire them, in time, to find religion? –Paul D. Spagnoli, Jr. ’46, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 2, 1997

As the century closes, our alumni acknowledge with shame that Princeton was one of the last so-called elite colleges to open its enrollment to African descent. In the next century, it will acknowledge with pride that Princeton was one of the first to endorse the right of everyone to a socially sanctioned ritual expression of love and commitment. –Thomas Grant III ’64, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, September 10, 1997

I was saddened to read the letters attacking Sue Anne Steffey Morrow for marrying two men in the Chapel. My understanding of the Christian message is that we are all beloved children of God, all equally and unconditionally accepted, “just as we are without one plea.” –Paul Walsh ’42, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, September 10, 1997

That these men in their 20s are quoted as being atheists is neither shocking nor news, nor does it set them apart from the student body as a whole. What is significant is their decision, despite their avowed atheism, to declare their pledges before God. The last word regarding anyone’s spiritual development has yet to be written. –Richard F. Limoges ’60, letter to the editor, Princeton Alumni Weekly, September 10, 1997

The people who have a problem with the registry…are people who have a problem with the fact that we are going to spend the rest of our lives together. –Michael Beer *95, Daily Princetonian, October 1, 1997

It seems the University is willing to tolerate and support alternate lifestyles among undergraduates, but as soon as undergraduates become alumni their lifestyles cease to be alternative and become somehow flawed or at least warrant discrimination. … Refusing to let same-sex couples record their matrimony, under whatever name, slams the chapel doors in their faces. –Daily Princetonian editorial, October 1, 1997

The Deans of Religious Life … are, in a very real way, the representatives of godliness on the Princeton campus, a role which can neither be ignored nor sanitized. … Morrow had to act on what she felt in her heart to be the will of God… If she believes that the will of God is marrying two young males in the Chapel, as odd and even sacreligious as that belief may appear to the majority of Christians, then that is not only what she can do but what she must do. … –Micah Weinberg ’98, “Stuck in the Middle of the Road,” Progressive Review, November 1997 (Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364), Box 29)

Same-sex marriage has been legally recognized in New Jersey since October 21, 2013, which did away with the requirement that these couples sign a different registry for weddings in Princeton University Chapel. More information about reserving the Chapel for weddings is available at this website.


Daily Princetonian

Office of the Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel Records (AC144)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Progressive Review, Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

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