In the eye of the law, in the United States, the clergyman is simply a private citizen with no more powers or privileges than other citizens. In England until very recently a clergyman was prohibited by law from holding any secular office, or ever being elected a member of the House of Commons. Now, however, both in this country and in England, priests and deacons may relinquish their duties as clergymen and enter another profession.
In the United States the civil law does not regulate in any way the entering of the clerical office. It imposes no examinations, and establishes no standard of merit as it does for admission to the bar. Of the three great duties of the clergymen, baptism, marriage, and the burial of the dead, the law only recognizes one, that of marriage, and this has been recognized only for about two hundred years. The first marriage of this kind in New England was performed in 1686. The question as to whether an ordained minister could unite himself in marriage to the woman of his choice was discussed for a long time in England and was finally brought before the House of Lords for settlement. The discussion of the question covers eighty-five pages of the records of the House. It was decided to pass a law prohibiting any clergyman from solemnizing his own marriage. The law does not recognize in any way the right of the clergyman to bury the dead, although this is one of the more important of his duties.
Ministers are in every country exempted from military duty and jury service. They are permitted to visit jails, prisons, hospitals, and to be present at executions if the condemned wish it. It is the duty of the clergyman of a parish in small towns to see that the children of his people are being instructed at schools provided for them. A clergyman is legally entitled to hold his office for life unless he signs an agreement to the contrary with his parishoners. This right can only be legally forfeited by a majority vote of the people in his parish.