Washington, D.C. Passes Law to Allow Atheists To Officiate Wedding Ceremonies

It used to be that the only people who could officiate your wedding ceremony in Washington, D.C. were representatives of religious groups:

The officiant is any District of Columbia Judge or anyone who is authorized by a religious organization to officiate marriages, such as a minister, priest, rabbi or imam, so long as he or she is registered with the Marriage Bureau to officiate marriages.

Humanist and Secular Celebrants did not count, so atheists were pretty much left in the dark. They could fake it and get a religious person to solemnize their vows… or they could just have a court wedding.

Back in February, D.C. City Council member (and candidate for Mayor) Tommy Wells tried to change that when he introduced a bill that would create “one-day officiant permit[s]” that didn’t require a religious organization to sponsor you.

Tommy Wells (via The Washington Post)

Today, Mayor Vincent Gray signed that bill, the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act Of 2013, into law.

The act will grant bestow temporary “Civil celebrant” status on secular Americans who perform marriage ceremonies. The registration fee to obtain that status would be $25 or less and would expire after the couple filed for a marriage license.

The Center For Inquiry sees this as a “key milestone in the march toward full social equality for America’s fasted-growing belief group: the nonreligious.”

“The tide of history is turning in the direction of marriage equality, and not just in regard to who may get married to whom, but also to who is empowered to perform the marriage itself,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, the group’s president and CEO. “CFI has long championed the rights of nonreligious couples to have the choice of a wedding officiant that reflects their values and worldview, without being forced to compromise those principles with a church-affiliated ceremony or a pro forma act by a government functionary. Secular Celebrants, officially empowered to solemnize marriages, offer that choice, and give atheist, agnostic, and humanist couples the chance to have a truly meaningful ceremony.”

Because the license is only temporary, though, some have argued that this bill doesn’t really offer the equality it suggests:

“It still treats secular, nonreligious persons as second class,” [Steven Lowe, a board member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists], who previously presented testimony to the Council about the bill, said. “We would prefer that D.C. treat secular marriage officiants equally to religious ones and grant them the option of being certified to perform as a marriage officiant without limit.”

It’s a good first step. But it’s not the last one, in D.C. or elsewhere. This issue is far from being settled.

As I’ve written before, CFI sued the state of Indiana in 2012 over not allowing Secular Celebrants to officiate weddings and their lawsuit was thrown out. Such a shame…

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.