Indiana Bans Humanist Celebrants from Performing Weddings, but This Lawsuit Could Change That

Suppose you’re an atheist getting married to another atheist. Who performs your wedding ceremony?

Maybe a priest (if your parents are paying for the ceremony).

Maybe a good friend (if they get the proper paperwork in time).

Maybe a Humanist Celebrant or a Secular Celebrant.

But in Indiana, only a handful of people are allowed to perform the task:

  • Members of the clergy
  • A judge
  • A mayor
  • A city clerk or circuit court clerk
  • Churches (if they solemnize the marriage, like in Mormonism)

No Humanist/Secular celebrants on the list.

Two things atheists could do without at a wedding ceremony

Is this discrimination against the non-religious? The Center For Inquiry thinks so and they’re arguing this point in court on Monday:

CFI… is asserting that the law is unconstitutional on the grounds that it allows persons of faith to be married by religious leaders of their choice, while denying similar opportunities to those who desire a nonreligious solemnization performed by a Secular Celebrant. This represents a clear preference for religion over non-religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and denies rights secured by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“More and more Americans believe that everyone, regardless of gender, race, or religious beliefs, has the right to decide who they will be married to. But it’s also time to recognize that couples should have the right to decide who they will be married by,” said Reba Boyd Wooden, executive director of CFI’s Indiana branch and a Secular Celebrant. “I have high hopes that the court will recognize the right of secular Americans — and all those who would opt not to have a religious wedding — to celebrate their unions in the manner of their choosing, just as any person of faith may do.”

The obvious question may be: Why can’t atheists just get married by judges or clerks or mayors or any of the other secular options on the list?

That question is answered in the lawsuit (PDF):

A ceremony solemnized by secular elected officials is often not an acceptable alternative for any number of reasons including, but not limited to: limitations on time and place ceremonies may occur, the fact that religious concepts and language may be included notwithstanding the couple’s desires, the couple does not want the governmental overtone that the elected official’s presence carries, and the official typically does not know the couple personally and therefore cannot construct a service which expresses the couple’s values and personalities.

But can’t Humanist/Secular celebrants just go ahead and perform wedding ceremonies anyway?

No. It’s considered a Class B misdemeanor in Indiana if an unauthorized person performs such a ceremony. That’s why this case is important.

Listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Michelle Landrum and John Kiel (a couple wishing to be married by a Secular Celebrant) and Reba Boyd Wooden (a Secular Celebrant who is not allowed to perform their wedding).

CFI is hoping that Indiana Code 31-11-6-1 (which lists the people who can perform a wedding ceremony) will be declared unconstitutional as it stands right now and, temporarily, that the court will allow Wooden to perform the wedding ceremony without penalty.

This should be an easy decision since there’s no good reason to oppose Humanist/Secular Celebrants. It’s not like just anybody would be performing the ceremonies; these would be officiants who have been through a proper training. Let’s hope the courts see it that way, too.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Mary Ellen Mayo

    I wish this couple success in their efforts. No one but the people getting married should be determining who officiates at their wedding. I believe, in a number of places, Notaries Public can even solemnize a wedding. I spent all of my teens and twenties hearing constant demonization of secular humanists and atheists by fundamentalist Christians. It was a breath of fresh air to walk into a UU church and meet and get to know some of them, and today I trust them more than I ever will your average Christian again. I also today identify as an agnostic leaning towards humanism with some Buddhist thrown in. If necessary, this should go all the way to the Supreme Court.

  • Drumlab

    Not sure if things have changed in Indiana in the past 14 years but I was born, raised and married there and have never heard of this law. My wife and I were married in a secular ceremony officiated by a college anthropology professor. I’m not questioning the validity of this post, just wondering how strictly the rule is actually enforced.

  • Drumlab

    *my comment was meant to be general and not a direct reply to yours, Mary Ellen. Sorry, I hit the wrong button.

  • 7Footpiper

    “It’s not like just anybody would be performing the ceremonies”

    To me personally, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing allowing anyone to perform a marriage ceremony as long as all of the legal paperwork is in order and maybe have them take a short course of online training.  In the words of the Revered Philosopher J. Clarkson, “How hard can it be?”.

  • Earl G.

    Wouldn’t a Secular Celebrant already count as “clergy”?

  • Em

     Not sure you’d want to use Clarkson as an example. The wedding would burn down, and it would turn out to actually be quite hard. ;)

  • A3Kr0n

    The government has no business who marries who or by whom. Why people get a state marriage license is beyond me . Why would people want the state to be a partner in their marriage? Get a private contract instead from a lawyer. The reason why states started issuing marriage licenses in the first place was to control inter-racial marriages after the Civil War which in itself should be sufficient reason to reject them as racist.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong here.

  • Katie Jacobs

    I agree with 7Footpiper.  
    Why not just have anyone perform a ceremony?  Why does the government care who is spouting sentimental crap at my wedding?  When my husband and I got married 13 years ago in Indiana, we didn’t want any officiant. We were going to have friends and family do a few readings, then say our vows ourselves.  We’d sign our own certificate with the witnesses and go file it ourselves.  No can do.  And I couldn’t get a clerk or JP to come out to the wedding, either.  It didn’t occur to me to ask the mayor.  We ended up having a mildly religious ceremony.  To the pastor’s credit, I think he sensed that we were nonreligious and kept religion out of it as much as possible.  And religious issues never came up during our premarital counseling sessions that he required.  Still, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the situation and really wished I could have had a ceremony that reflected our lives and love for each other more honestly.

  • Earl G.

    Exactly.  It seems weird that there are all these laws about  rituals, which are inherently meaningless things. They only have as much meaning as each individual chooses to impart them with.  So why legislate rituals instead of just letting everybody do whatever they want?

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    One more example of how those who reportedly are PRO-MARRIAGE will put obstacles in the way for anyone different than themselves to actually engage in…. 
    …oh yeah, MARRIAGE!

  • Gus Snarp

    I’ve said this on other posts here, but as far as I’m concerned, as soon as the legal paperwork is properly filled out and signed you should be fully married before the law. What ceremony you choose to have, and religion’s role in it is entirely your own affair. Unfortunately, I think this would take a constitutional amendment in States like Indiana and Ohio.

  • JoeBuddha

    I’m not a clergy-person by any stretch, but I performed my sister’s wedding. We had a Unitarian pastor (leader? priest? Not sure of the terminology) attend and do the paperwork, but she had no part in the procedings. It was strictly secular. I agree that the only legitimate roll of the state should be in accepting the contract paperwork. If the paperwork is done and correct, that’s all that SHOULD matter.

  • Stev84

    It’s probably only a misdemeanor for someone to perform a legal wedding without being authorized. They probably wouldn’t do anything if people got married by a judge for the legal stuff and then had a friend perform a non-binding ceremony.

  • Stev84

    Ideally, you’d get legally married at city hall. Doesn’t necessarily have to be a ceremony, but just by signing some papers – similar to how people get a marriage license now. Some official would be there to check that everything is in order. Then afterwards people can have any kind of ceremony they want, but it would have no legal significance whatsoever.

    Much of Europe is halfway there, because church weddings are purely ceremonial there. Usually people have to get married by a secular officiant (who is a government employee) before. However, some sort of ceremony is required.

  • Sarah T.

     In most states, the burden of ‘enforcing’ this law is on the couple. The county clerk is not, generally, supposed to determine if someone had a legal officiant. But if there is some question as to the validity of the marriage (by an insurance company, or by INS), the officiant could be one factor under question. It’s pretty rare, nowadays, but it could happen.

  • Sarah T.

     The state and federal governments confer many benefits onto married couples, benefits that can’t be obtained through a private contract. Whether or not the state should convey those benefits is an entirely separate issue from the question of which parties can legally sign a marriage license as the officiant.

    Personally, I think most states should just let people self-solemnize. If they want to have an officiant that should be optional, like the ‘second witness’ line is in many states.

  • Stev84

    First off those contracts cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees. And even then you can’t cover a fraction of what is covered by marriage laws. You can’t write a contract to get yourself on someone’s health insurance for example. Or make yourself eligible to sponsor someone for immigration. Or for tax breaks. Or any other sort of monetary benefits that come from the government. Such a contract can only cover your own property or your children and even then it’s a gamble whether other people will recognize it.

  • Stev84

    There was another way:
    1.) Have a short legal ceremony by a JP or a judge just to get the papers
    2.) Then have a more elaborate ceremony officiated by a friend

    That second ceremony is non-binding, but it can be any way you want. This whole problem stems from the fact that most Americans somehow think – because of tradition – that you need to do everything in one single ceremony.

  • Phil

    It’s ridiculous.  In France, and in much of Europe, you get married twice:  the first wedding (and it must be first) is the official one done at City Hall or its equivalent – this is the one that counts.  This is usually, but not always attended by the couple and a few close friends or relatives.  The second wedding, usually done the same day or a few days afterwards, is done in a church –  it’s completely optional, of course.

    I know that in Florida, any notary public is authorized to execute a marriage license – which is really just a civil contract.

  • Yvi

    Well, depends on what you mean by “ceremony”. A civil wedding in Germany can be in city hall with only the couple and the person employed by the city and only has to include checking the papers, saying “yes” and signing the papers. I wouldn’t call that a ceremony – in its barest forms, it wouldn’t be much more ceremonial than getting a new passport, except for maybe the formal question and having to say “yes”.

  • C Peterson

    I agree that the government has no business determining who marries whom, or who actually conducts a marriage ceremony (or even if there is a ceremony). But it makes perfectly good sense for the government to require some sort of formal, legal agreement to exist, since it provides certain benefits for parties to a marriage. Even if marriages were largely defined by private contract, registering those contracts in some way with the government (e.g. a marriage license) is necessary.

  • Stev84

    Yeah, I really, really, really don’t get why people can’t just go to a government official (mayor or judge) to have a short legal ceremony and then have whatever  big ceremony they want with their family. It’s so simple. It can really only be blamed on tradition. Because it’s how it’s always been in America, people think that you need to do everything in one ceremony.

  • Marc

     This is exactly what we did in NH — the official part was done in the back room of the hall where the Justice of the Peace had us and 2 witnesses (conveniently our Best Man and Best Woman where there :-) sign a form that the JP mailed in.  Since the JP was there, she said some nice words in front of our friends and family.

  • Hayley

    I was married in Indiana this summer. Since the law doesn’t expressly forbid it, and because the law does allow for “clergy” that do not have congregations, we had a friend get ordained online. We wrote the entire ceremony ourselves and it was a lovely, secular wedding. But I would have loved the option of an actual secular celebrant.

  • Tony Miller

    How is ‘Members of the clergy” legally defined? If the celebrant goes to an online ordination site to be ordained, would that count? 

  • Julie Lada

    Yup. My husband and I (both atheists) were married in Indiana two years ago. Our friend had gone through the proper channels online to be able to legally perform the ceremony, but reading through Indiana’s marriage laws left us nervous as to whether our marriage would be valid should he do so. So the day before our wedding we went down to the courthouse and got officially, legally married and then had our true “wedding” with all of our friends and family and vows that we chose the next day.

    I will always remember both of us giggling as we read through the script they provided for us in a courtroom full of three strangers (the official and two witnesses) and then being giddy on the way home as we realized that we were already married the day before our actual wedding.

  • ortcutt

     So, my wife and I got married in Massachusetts this summer.  We didn’t want a church wedding (obviously) and we wanted to get married at home with our families there.  One option was that we could pay for a Justice of the Peace ($100) to come to our house and be the celebrant, but we didn’t really want a stranger at our wedding.  The other option was to sign up my Uncle as a one-day officiant.  We had to file the paperwork for that a month ahead of time and pay $40.  He did a great job as the master of ceremonies, but from a legal standpoint the whole thing was absurd.  His entire job from a legal perspective was to sign marriage license along with us.  That’s it.  I have no idea why a couple couldn’t sign the marriage license and send it back themselves.  The only thing I could think of is that the system is there to benefit the clergy and justices of the peace.  If the Commonwealth didn’t put barriers in place, more people would do their own ceremonies and the churches and rentier Justices of the Peace would make less money.

  • Steve Ziolkowski

     We did this too. Officially we were married the day before we had the ceremony, which a friend then officiated at.

  • ortcutt

    Marriage is a legal status.  Saying that government has no business in a legal status makes no sense whatsoever.  Legal statuses are ipso facto governmental.  The problems that people face regarding entering into marriage all stem from the fact that people forget that marriage is a legal status.  I don’t need a celebrant or an officiant to enter into a contract, make a will, or anything else.  Why on Earth should I need one to enter into a marriage?

  • ortcutt

    It depends on the state.  Some states will count any ordination, even online ones, as valid.  Others are much stricter.

  • ortcutt

    Most states have provisions such that any inadequacies in the solemnization won’t affect the legality of your marriage.  I guess the worry is that someone claims to be a clergy member, but isn’t really, or something else like that.

  • gurudwara

    I was married in Indiana at city hall by a judge. It was a beautiful service and both of our families were able to celebrate with us. It was everything I wanted in a ceremony without any of the goddiness.

  • Ibis3

     You are wrong, as outlined by Stev84. Also, there is the issue of divorce. Laws are in place to protect both parties and the marital property in case of divorce. It can be very expensive to try to enforce a private contract which may not encompass all of the circumstances faced by a couple who has been together for a while, which, moreover, may unfairly favour one party over the other. And just try to get third parties (insurance companies, banks, hospitals, employers, condo boards, landlords, governments from local to international) to comply with your contract! The legal status of children whether biological or adopted is made much more complicated too. All of this is why we have *marriage* in the first place. The wedding ceremony? Irrelevant.

  • Tiffany Jade Brown

    We have a similar law in MS. Not to mention the even more ridiculous laws of not being able to get married under the age of 21 without parental consent and the fact that the consent forms must be signed in the county where the parents of the bride reside. Because of this, my husband and I pretty much cancelled our wedding and eloped to nearby TN. It was great. No big fuss, no mention of god or religion at all. Of course, it would have been nice to have a ceremony with friends and family. Maybe someday we will. 

  • r.holmgren

    Anyone my age (61) or thereabouts can remember a time when secular people repeated over and over the mantra, “Marriage is just a piece of paper. It doesn’t mean anything.” But let that piece of paper carry overtones of restriction and then by golly secular people will spend thousands of dollars suing anyone in sight in order to get that piece of paper.  

  • Deven Kale

     Revered Philosopher? Is that even possible?

  • Rod Chlebek

    Has a celebrant actually been denied?

  • chicago dyke, Blonde

    this is why for years, i’ve been annoyed that the queer and humanist/secular communities have been so focused on marriage equality. yes, it’s a good idea and we should all have it. but, sigh. how about full and equal rights, and the state keeping its nose out of our relationships, however we choose to define them? the state has no business or interest in telling anyone how they have personal relations with other people, period. 

    i know, i know, “property, children, insurance…” blah blah. but those things can be equalized for individuals without the state taking an interest in some meaningless ceremony that is of the Right Kind(tm), whatever the hell that means. i’ve been in a lot of non-traditional relationships with all sorts of people, that at the same time had something to do with property, money or children. i cannot tell you how frustrating it has been for me to know that despite my sincere and decent efforts, the law refuses to recognize that because i’m not “married” to some/all/one of the people in those relationships, i have no rights and can lose everything for no good reason other than whim. 

    marriage is mostly a patriarchal construction that stems from religious ideas and the notion that women and children are property. i have never understood why so many progressives spend all this time, effort and money trying to conform to that ancient, sexist, classist model. call me a ‘marriage radical,’ but what i’d really like to see is sensibly, equal, logical laws that relate to property, family, parenting and insurance that apply equally to everyone, regardless of whether or not we’ve had a ceremony “consecrating” a personal relationship. we manage to achieve equality with important things like car insurance or laws that define how all adults must provide certain protections for any child for whom they are responsible regardless of blood ties. we can do the same when it comes to the contracts people may enter into as a result of a personal relationship. 

  • Rod Chlebek

    Need some clarification here. Is she a Humanist Celebrant like the blog title reads or a Secular Celebrant. If she is a Humanist Celebrant, my first assumption would be that she is a celebrant of AHA, not CFI. But then, all the language of the suit reads “CFI” ad nauseum.

  • Stephen Cameron

    ” t’s not like just anybody would be performing the ceremonies; these would be officiants who have been through a proper training.”

    Out of curiousity, what is “proper training”?   Are there cases of couples complaining that their marriage failed due to an improperly trained officiant officiating the wedding?

  • amycas

     I’m confused about the point of your comment. Are you just pointing out how the views of the secular movement have changed over time, or are you trying to claim some sort of hypocrisy? If the latter, it’s not hypocrisy, because the people from 40 to 60 years ago are not the same people involved in this case.

  • Cat MacKinnon

     here in CO, that’s exactly what happens. a couple can, of course, choose to have a ceremony wherever they choose (and officiated by pretty much whoever they want.) but regardless of who officiates or where the ceremony is, it’s not legal until the couple goes to the City and County building and fills out their marriage license. at least in Denver (where i was married), there’s even a line on the license paperwork for “self-officiating”, ie couples just “officiate” their own wedding right there at the desk, pay the $10 fee and are given their license. it requires nothing other than the signatures of the couple (meaning you don’t have to say vows in front of the county clerk or anything.)

    basically as far as the City and County of Denver is concerned, aside from a couple minor exceptions, they really couldn’t care less who officiated your wedding or even if there was a ceremony at all. i’m not sure if that’s unique to Denver or if that’s how all counties in Colorado do it, but it seems like the most rational way to go.

    i didn’t even realise that other states don’t handle marriage this way, and that’s unfortunate. it just seems like a no-brainer, pragmatic way to handle it.

  • Sven

    A friend of mine got married in New York State back in 2010.  The bride’s brother did exactly that: he got “ordained” in a quickie online course, and was allowed to perform the wedding ceremony.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Correction:  CFI has Secular Celebrants (Not Humanist Celebrants). Reason being that The Humanist Society certifies Humanist Celebrants (their term so CFI is using Secular Celebrant instead).  The Humanist Society is chartered as a religious organization so Humanist Celebrants certified by The Humanist Society can solemnize marriages in any state in the union under the religious classification.  CFI is a ‘secular” humanist organization and not a religion so they cannon.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Sure, we do that all the time but should we have to have the two step process when religious clergy can do both.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    This law was on the books then also.  Your college professor had some kind of certification to be legal.  Could have been the online minister version or ???   But he would have had to have either a religious certification or come under the legal category.  If not, he was in violation of the law and could be presecuted if anyone really cared and checked into it. 

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    There is no requirement of training we were just trying to make the case stronger by offering a training program.  Since 1962 the Universal Life Church has ordained close to 18 million persons, sending out between 8.500 and 10,000 clergy ordination certificates a month.  All one has to do is go on line and get ordained and they are legal to sign marriage certificates because their ordination is “religious.”  While CFI’s trained Secular Celebrants cannot legally do this.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Since 1962 the Universal Life Church has ordained close to 18 million persons, sending out between 8.500 and 10,000 clergy ordination certificates a month. All one has to do is go on line and get ordained and they are legal to sign marriage certificates because their ordination is “religious.”

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    See my post above which explains this. The headline is wrong.  Yes Humanist Celebrants are certified by The Humanist Society which is chartered as a religious organization and can therefor legally sign marriage certificates in all states.  The Humanist Society is associated with AHA.  CFI has Secular Celebrants and since CFI is not a religious organization they cannot sign marriage certificatesl.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    No, because myself or nonone wants to violate the law and risk being prosecuted.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    As far as I know, even in TN the person who solemnized your marriage that is signed your certificate had to be under either a religious or civil certification.  Get out your marriage certificate and see under what authority did the person do this?  At least in Indiana the person has to list their affiliation under their name.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    I am glad this worked for you but that is not the usual case.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    It does in most states.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Sure, anyone can do the ceremony but only those authorized in the law can solemnize the marriage which means sign the marriage certificate. If religious clergy can do both why should our CFI Secular Celebrants be allowed to do both.  This is privileging religion over non religion.

  • Hemant Mehta

    Whoops! Didn’t know that. I think I fixed the piece.

  • Stev84

     Yes. Why should clergy be involved in a civil legal contract?

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Doesn’t look like it is fixed.  I would appreciate it if you would do that.  I have nothing agains The Humanist Society and it is a fine organization but it is chartered as a religious organization.  Here is a quote from their websitea; “It was therefore with the goal in mind that this small band of former Quakers incorporated, in December 1939, under the state laws of California the Humanist Society of Friends as a religious, educational, charitable nonprofit organization authorized to issue charters anywhere in the world and to train and ordain its own ministry, who upon ordination are then accorded the same rights and privileges granted by law to priests, ministers, and rabbis of traditional theistic religions.

    I know this very well.  I was  a Humanist Celebrant certified by the Humanist Society from 2001-2008 and solemnized over 50 marriages in Indiana during tht period–perfectly legal because The Humanist Society is chartered as a religious organization and is legal in every state in the union.  CFI is trying to make a case for Secular Humanism and Secular Celebrants.  We should not have to be a religious organization to have this right.   I resigned my certification from The Humanist Society in order to develop the CFI program and advocate for this cause.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Quote from The Humanist Society website:

    It was therefore with the goal in mind that this small band of former Quakers incorporated, in December 1939, under the state laws of California the Humanist Society of Friends as a religious, educational, charitable nonprofit organization authorized to issue charters anywhere in the world and to train and ordain its own ministry, who upon ordination are then accorded the same rights and privileges granted by law to priests, ministers, and rabbis of traditional theistic religions.

  • Anita V

    While I agree that it’s ridiculous for Humanist officiants to be banned from officiating ceremonies, there is another option. Couples can hire a Life-Cycle Celebrant who creates custom wedding ceremonies. The goal of a Life-Cycle Celebrant is to serve the needs and desires of the couple. I am a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant and an Athiest. I have created unique and personal wedding ceremonies for couples with no hint of religion – even in Indiana.