Indiana Court Upholds Ban on Secular Celebrants Who Want to Perform Weddings

According to Indiana Code 31-11-6-1, only a handful of people are allowed to perform a marriage: members of the clergy, churches themselves, a mayor, a city clerk… but not a Secular Celebrant or Humanist Celebrant.

The Center For Inquiry recently sued the state over this, saying it was unconstitutional to allow people of faith to be married by their faith leaders, while denying non-religious people the right to have their marriages performed by a Celebrant.

Two things atheists could do without at a wedding ceremony

Their lawsuit, in part, said this (PDF):

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.

Unfortunately, an Indiana federal district court ruled against CFI on Friday. The judge said that non-religious people already *can* perform weddings… provided that they go through the proper channels. Becoming a trained Celebrant, however, doesn’t qualify as a “proper channel”:

We conclude that the Solemnization Statute is rationally related to the legitimate purpose of alleviating significant governmental interference with pre-existing religious beliefs about marriage. Additionally, the statute bears a rational relation to the equally reasonable purpose of allowing the government to assume responsibility for the marriage regulation function without ostracizing its religious constituents. For these and all of the reasons explicated above, we find that Plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim — whether grounded in Free Exercise Clause or Establishment Clause jurisprudence — does not succeed on the merits.

The court offered alternative ways for Secular Celebrants to perform weddings:

… there are several readily available avenues by which a Secular Celebrant may facilitate a marriage ceremony in Indiana: she may (1) preside at a wedding and then instruct the couple to go before one of the individuals listed in the Solemnization Statute to have the marriage solemnized; (2) become a member of the “clergy” by seeking immediate Internet ordination from the Universal Life Church; or (3) seek certification to solemnize marriages from the Humanist Society.

So… to paraphrase:

1) Secular Celebrants can perform a wedding… as long as they tell the couple to go see a Rabbi afterwards.

2) Secular Celebrants can perform a wedding… as long as they pay a few bucks to a random church online.

3) Secular Celebrants can perform a wedding… as long as they get certified by a group founded by Quakers.

It’s amazing to me that a trained Secular Celebrant is unable to legally perform a wedding, but a random schmuck who pays a few bucks online can. How this is anything but an unfair preference to religious people (who don’t have to have any particular credentials) is lost on me.

(via Religion Clause)

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.

  • Kahomono

    Um, I think we need to un-twist our knickers over this.  When the court said Celebrants can  preside at a wedding and then instruct the couple to go before one of the individuals listed in the Solemnization Statute to have the marriage solemnized… doesn’t that include a city clerk?

    There is also a path offered for atheist celebrants to be able to solemnize directly, and that’s to get registered with the very explicitly non-theistic ULC.

    The capitalization of “Secular Celebrant” and “Humanist Celebrant” makes this whole issue sound to me like not being so much a matter of, the state refuses to accept non-religious solemnization (they already explicitly do that via city clerks, etc.), but *which* celebrants they accept.  I am ok with the fact that they have a list that is inclusive of non-religious options and yet doesn’t just accept any schmuck who wanders by.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’m having a problem with their specific endorsement of the Universal Life Church.  There are lots of churches that offer online ordination (I’m ordained through CoFSM).  Will they accept any online ordination, or only Universal Life?  Because that’s pretty clearly favoring one religion over another.

    I hope this can be appealed to the next level!

  • Tamara

    Same problem in North Carolina. My mother got ordained by the Universal Life Church online (calling herself The Reverend Mother) so she could sign the papers for us. It was a very small family wedding, so we just said our vows to each other without anyone standing there in front of us.

  • Rod Chlebek

    This is pathetic

  • Stevenbs

    Umm, the ULC is free…maybe that’s not your point, but it is free. &

    (two different splinters of the original ULC)

  • Kahomono

    Right – although they offer wedding kits for sale, but that’s an actual product.

    Also, a ULC-ordained person and a Rabbi alike have to go through a registration process to be recognized in a given state.  It’s not a big deal — and it doesn’t care at all which religion you profess, or none at all — but you have to do it before your signature on the license will mean anything.

  • The Other Weirdo

    For the love of the FSM, spend a few bucks getting ordained and receiving a kit. Or go to a judge. The court even told you how to get it done: become a minister of FSM or an ArthurDentian Bishop. Subvert them from within.

  • Rod Chlebek

    I agree. There is no “ban,” as the title reads. If someone from CFI or AHA wants to marry someone, they become a celebrant and then go online a pay a few bucks.

  • A3Kr0n

    All this state marriage stuff is bullshit to begin with, and I’m in just enough of a shitty mood today to say so. Now back to searching for “fuck SolidWorks”…

  • C Peterson

    The problem I see is this whole requirement for “solemnization”. What is the state interest there? You get a marriage license, you should be seen as legally married. If you want a ceremony, great, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with the legal marriage itself, and it shouldn’t matter whether it’s performed by the Pope or by your horse.

  • Amandatheatheist

    The difference between a Secular Celebrant and a city clerk is that a city clerk is a civil official, and a Celebrant is not. If a non-religious person cannot get married by their secular community leader that they know personally without having a second ceremony/solemnization, why can a religious person have just one ceremony with someone they know personally? In other words, why is a religious leader endowed with solemnization powers if a similarly positioned secular leader cannot be? How does that make sense?

  • ortcutt

    So, you don’t think that the state should be involved in legal matters like marriage?  Marriage is a legal status.  That’s what it is and all it is.  Are you proposing that it should be abolished then?

  • Kahomono

    They can, they just have to do some paperwork. So does any priest or rabbi.
    I think raised hackles are leading to an epidemic of Not Getting It

  • jdm8

    If this is really about training, what training is a mayor or city clerk is going to have? Are they required to have this training to legally have this post, or does the position simply endow the rights without requiring any such training?

  • Houndentenor

     Exactly.  This is a legal matter and the person certifying the marriage ought to have some standing with the state.  We do this with notaries public, after all.  But there ought to be some way for someone not affiliated with a religious denomination to get this status.

  • Superdove

    I guess sometimes FA offers a release valve for whiners. This is a perfect example! 

  • Reginald Selkirk

    We conclude that the Solemnization Statute is rationally related to the
    legitimate purpose of alleviating significant governmental interference
    with pre-existing religious beliefs about marriage. Additionally, the
    statute bears a rational relation to the equally reasonable purpose of
    allowing the government to assume responsibility for the marriage
    regulation function without ostracizing its religious constituents.

    That sounds to me like a clear preference is being granted to “pre-existing” religious beliefs over new belief (or non-belief). And that sounds like entanglement. I hope this is going to be appealed.

  • Sindigo

    The “solemnisation” ceremony is part of the legal requirement I think. Vows made in public, or at least in front of witnesses and notarised by an official of some sort.

    At our wedding last year it struck me as being a little archaic too but I guess that’s how a lot of things work in law. Signing documents, having laws signed off by heads of state even peace treaties. It’s all about the ceremony. 

  • GG

     The Universal Life ‘Church’ is owned by my cousin. It is NOT a church and it is as religious as the CoFSM, that is not at all. It is a joke that Indiana will accept ‘ordination’ from him, and not from a humanist organization. My cousin started it as an anti-religion, anti-church scheme, when the word ‘atheist’ was not well known!

  • Artor

    What the hell is a “Celebrant?” I’ve never heard the word used except to refer to someone celebrating. Is this an official occupation in Indiana? Why don’t people have whatever ceremony they want, and just file the paperwork at the county clerk’s office? That’s what I did when I married in Oregon. I suppose it’s different elsewhere, but I’m still bewildered by this “celebrant” stuff.

  • ortcutt

    I think C Peterson was arguing that we should do away with the solemnization requirement.  Most legal transactions get along just fine with no “ceremony”.  Most contracts don’t even require a writing.  In most states, wills can be formed by signing in front of witnesses who attest their signatures.  We don’t require people to have will ceremonies or contract ceremonies in the Courthouse or before a clergyman.  Requiring a separate solemnization before a designated official after you’ve already signed your names to the licence is an odd requirement for a legal transaction. 

  • C Peterson

    Yeah, I know it’s a legal requirement. But it’s an anachronism, and there’s no rational reason for it. And from a practical legal standpoint, it requires regular updates to the law as different “solemnizers” go in and out of favor.

  • Sindigo

    I suppose you’re right. It beats jumping over a broom six times though.

  • Sindigo

    I suppose you’re right. It beats jumping over a broom six times though.

  • C Peterson

    It beats jumping over a broom six times though.

    How so?

  • Stev84

    You do know that in much of the rest of the western world it’s normal for people to get married at city hall and then have a religious wedding afterwards, right? Which is precisely what America should do country-wide – not that it ever will. People already go to city hall for a marriage license. There is no reason people can’t just get married there.

  • Stev84

    It’s another word for “officiant”. Traditionally the word seems to come from the Catholic and Anglican churches, but Australia for example officially uses to for people who perform weddings.

  • Coyotenose

     Your posts are so consistently pissy that I worry your blood sugar is getting a little low. You might want to scream upstairs at your mom for another sandwich.

  • Adam Steele

    Really?  Because the real ULC was started by a minister in 1959 (and he died in 1999).  It’s now run by Martin Freeman, and he runs it very much as a religious organization that doesn’t care what you actually believe beyond stuff like “make the world better.”  

  • Ryan Jean

    We conclude that the Solemnization Statute is rationally related to the
    legitimate purpose of alleviating significant governmental interference with pre-existing religious beliefs about marriage. Additionally, the statute bears a rational relation to the equally reasonable purpose of allowing the government to assume responsibility for the marriage regulation function without ostracizing its religious constituents.

    As was pointed out elsewhere, these clauses speak volumes about the thinking of the court. It’s not so much that they feel they are preferring religion over none, as it is that they feel that as long as the state governs marriage there is a potential conflict between church and state that has historically been alleviated by granting religious groups default assumed permission to solemnize marriages. This prevents a violation of free exercise, but by restricting the permission to religious entities, it creates an all new establishment clause problem. CFI is in a rather unique position, as their secular celebrant program is more detailed than most realize, and the people achieving the status are quite well prepared to perform the function.

    My guess is that the court decided to loosely adopt IRS standards as to what is/isn’t a religious organization, and arbitrarily decided that allowing them while restricting all other non-state entities would walk the fine line of the First Amendment. IRS Code (formally Title 26, US Code)  §501(c)(3) defines tax exempt organizations, and while CFI qualifies as a “c3″ they aren’t a “church or religious organization” under that statute, thus the court just decided they don’t qualify without bothering to look further.

    The mention of accepting ULC ordination is rather interesting, as they do claim the church form of c3 status, but because they have no official qualification standards, training program, congregation, or even a membership beyond those ordained, some states have refused to accept them or other “instant online ordination” services as valid for marriages (even with the “letter of good standing” which can be purchased from their website).

    The Humanist Society is a different animal, though. First, I agree it is a bit ridiculous for the state to deny CFI while telling them to go doubly through HS. Second, however, the underhanded swipe at them because they were founded by [former] Quakers is a bit low. HS is explicitly a non-theistic Humanist group. The organization is a religious group under the IRS, but the usage there is technical and is not to be mistaken as theistic/deistic/supernatural belief.

    I find it strange, Hemant, that you had nothing negative to say about them when they endorsed my candidacy as an Atheist/Humanist Lay Leader for the Army, using that same “religious organization” status as a vehicle for meeting the requirements of Army Regulations. The Army is still refusing to abide by its own rules there, and my application is *still* in limbo as I write this, but pointing to the belief (or former belief) of its founders rather than what the organization actually believes is akin to the flawed and fallacious tactic of pointing to the religious beliefs of the USA’s founders and using it to argue that therefore the nation is technically religious.

    (Ryan Jean is a US Army Captain, an Atheist, a Humanist, and an applicant/candidate for Military Lay Leadership whose application has been in the process for well over a year due to Army push-back over Humanist recognition. He has been endorsed by the Humanist Society as a Military Lay Leader, and is currently seeking endorsement as a Humanist Celebrant by the same. He also possesses “instant online” ordinations from both the Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries, although he has never sought to use them.)

  • Adam Steele

    Usually it’s only the second one there that’s recognized by a lot of states.  The first one doesn’t do much.  The second one actually creates and promotes the “church” aspect, and is therefore seen as more legitimate.  

    While the ordination is free, almost all states want to see copies of your certificate and a letter from your leader for them to issue a license.  Those usually cost a few bucks.  Also, usually your state license costs money also.  

  • Lucreza Borgia

     I just got married in January and had to go get my license in a process separate from the ceremony. We did a courthouse wedding a few days later when there was room on the judges schedule. In Florida it was a clerk of the court after the mandatory waiting period.

    What this article does not touch on is how did the court come to this conclusion in conjunction with the laws of the state? What is the precedent, if any, that the court relied upon. It would be one thing if NO secular people were allowed to officiate, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The secular clerk and the priest of any religion are acting as state agents, not agents of their religion.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    “A marriage license is valid for 60 days from the date it is issued, and couples may be married as early as the same day.”

    “The marriage license fee is $18 if one or both parties are Indiana
    residents and $60.00 for out-of-state residents. Some offices also
    charge an additional document fee of $2.00.”

    At first glance, it appears that not only can one get a license AND be married at the clerk on the same day…one does not need to pay a separate fee for the ceremony. Therefore, there is no onerous burden for Celebrants to perform marriages. I don’t have time to look at all the individual counties so I could be wrong on the fees and scheduling.

    I have had 2 courthouse weddings and neither one cost me extra money. In fact, the fees in Florida and Wisconsin are substantially higher. I can’t believe I’m seeing $18!

  • Lucreza Borgia

     It probably has more to do with Indiana precedent than the personal opinion of the court. It’s really hard to make judgement calls on these cases without reading the entire opinion. I’m preparing for a contested custody case with my husband and it’s astounding how much precedent can royally screw or help a case. Add to that the laws of the state and it’s a clusterfuck.

  • Drew M.

     How meta!

  • Drew M.

     Hot Pocket!

  • amycas

     Is this a thing? I want this at my wedding.

  • Stev84
  • David Kopp

    That’s the way it is here in Colorado, I believe. It’s been a few years since I got married (and subsequently unmarried). It only requires the signatures of the two people involved. If someone signs as a witness then they need to be registered somehow, but you aren’t required to have a witness.

  • Candee Bell

    Wait… all you need is a signed document from the court saying you are married. The celebration can be separate so I don’t get it? I don’t need a religious person to hold my celebration.

  • WoodyTanaka

    Who cares what happens in the rest of the world?  We’re talking about the US Constitution, so those things are irrelevant.

  • WoodyTanaka

    The problem is that if you use one of the religious people, you don’t need a court ceremony, but if you use an atheist person, you do.  That’s discrimination and that’s not right.

  • WoodyTanaka

    Why should someone who is an atheist have to go through more hassle than one of these reglious?

  • WoodyTanaka

    Yes.  It should be simply something than anyone can apply for and get.  Make the Rabbis and Priests and anyone who wants to go and get a license, all on an equal basis.

  • AdzyBoy

     Mom…  The meatloaf!

  • Isilzha

    You can’t comprehend why it’s important to many atheists to make certain that marriage does not require a religious component, even a semblance of one?  Or why it’s important to assure the bureaucracy for a completely secular marriage ceremony is not more burdensome than those that use religious institution?

  • Isilzha

     Why should an atheist have to even pretend to be something they’re not?  Why should they have to cloak themselves in a sham religion in order to have the same rights as religious people? 

  • Michael Y

    Not that it makes it right, but for the sake of accuracy, you can get ordained online for free, even as an open atheist. My friend did that to officiate our wedding. He even splurged and spent $20 to become a saint. But I did it for free, so I’m officially a minister, while also being an orthodox atheist.

  • Truktyre

     David is correct. I just got married in Colorado and all that was required was my spouse and I sign the document and send it back to the county clerk.

  • David Costa

    You don’t have to pay anything to be Ordained by the Universal Life Church-It’s free. It takes about 30 seconds to complete. 

  • Superdove

    “…we want it now!”

  • Superdove

    Really? You don’t consider this whining? It’s a non-issue, since even preachers need to do paperwork in order to perform weddings – and anyone can do it. Everyone needs a state marriage license, anyway.

    Damn, I wish I could scream upstairs for a sandwich.

  • F Nancy

    They don’t – they have to go through much less! Religious people have to take pre-marriage classes, find a minister to marry them, negotiate which type of church the marriage will be in if there are two branches of belief involved, etc., etc. And still go to city hall to get a marriage license. The State couldn’t care less about the church marriage, all they care about is that an official does the ceremony and signs the license. 

    Why do you say it’s MORE hassle?

  • Nikolai Go+null

    the humanist society, according to the same link you posted, was started by a group of *former* Quakers.

  • Stev84

    USA! USA! USA! :rolleyes:

  • Bill Haines

    The only salient point is 3).

    It’s somewhat inaccurate: the Humanist Society was founded by *former* Quakers.  

    But you’re right that if the HS designation “counts” under the law:

    the CFI designation should “count” as well:

  • GG

    It is run by George Freeman. He thinks religion is a JOKE. He purchased the rights from the minister. He has books on every religion in he can find including books on atheism. He runs it like a MONEY making organization. He doesn’t give a damn about religion.

  • Kelly Grey

    The ULC uses a religious designation.  We don’t want to have to pretend we are a religion as it goes against what CFI stands for.  

  • Kelly Grey

    The ULC has a religious delegation. We don’t want to have to pretend we are a religion as it goes against what CFI stands for.

  • JB

    And Indiana wonders why they have a “brain drain.”

    With this kind of B.S. and stuff like Mitch Daniels taking over Purdue, I guess they’re hoping to completely rid the state of educated people.

    Good riddance. 

    – Proud member of the Indiana brain drain


  • Erp

    The odd thing about a society founded by Quakers (and a significant group of unprogrammed Quakers are atheistic) having celebrants is  that Quakers don’t have anyone officiating at their weddings.  Instead the couple  stand up and exchange words with the meeting witnessing (the interaction between various governments and the Quakers on how that works with government requirements varies). 

    On a side thought, many religions require pre-marital counseling before marriage, should humanists encourage secular pre-marital counseling and what should it entail? 

  • Sindigo

    Well, you’ve got to admit that’s it’s faintly less ridiculous.

    Okay, maybe not now I come to think of it.

    Is there no argument to be made for the solemnisation though? Is there no place for ritual? Should marriage be considered just like any other legal contract? I’ve only been married a year so maybe I’m a little biased as the cynicism has yet to (fully) set in but I can’t help but think that removing the necessity for ritual truly could undermine the importance of marriage.

  • C Peterson

    Ritual is important. But I see no value in trying to create or maintain it by legal force. And in this case, since “solemnization” can consist of as little as standing before a county clerk, what’s the point?

    People will, or will not, bring whatever ritual they want into their weddings. In fact, the solemnization law under discussion discourages ritual by making it difficult for some people to do just that.

    So to answer your final question, yes- marriage should be considered as nothing but a legal construct in the eyes of the government.

  • WoodyTanaka

    All that stuff has nothing to do with the state, but with the silly religious nonsense.  The problem is that that faithheads only have to have one ceremony, because state law says their magic-men and shamans are empowered to perform a marriage.  An athiest celebrant, however, isn’t.  So the atheist has to have the ceremony before the celebrant and then go to the courthouse and find a judge to do a second ceremony.  That’s the problem. 

  • WoodyTanaka

    First, go jump in lake with the jingo-baiting bullshit.

    Second, it’s not a ridiculous obsession, it’s simply part of American custom and culture and we’re discussing how to fit that custom and culture within the confines of American constitutional law.  If your only contribution is, “they do it differently overseas” then please go back to the kid’s table and let the adults speak among themselves.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    Yes, Colorado is one of he few states where you can do that.  Pennsylvania is another one.  Could be some others but they are the only ones that I know of where a couple can do this.

  • Nortalud

    Not to resurrect a long-dead comment thread or anything, but I plan to perform a marriage for some friends of my wife and I. I’ve done the “online ordination” thing through the Universal Life Church but have not purchased any of their certificates/kits. It will be interesting to see if the county clerk questions me when I go to file the copy of the marriage certificate.