Federal Court Overturns Indiana’s 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.

The Center For Inquiry sued the state over this in 2012, saying it was unconstitutional to allow people of faith to be married by their faith leaders, while denying non-religious people the same right to have their marriages performed by a 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.

Unfortunately, an Indiana federal district court ruled against CFI that December. The judge said that non-religious people already *can* perform weddings… provided that they go through the proper channels. Becoming a trained Celebrant, however, didn’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 could perform a wedding… as long as they told the couple to go see a Rabbi afterwards.

2) Secular Celebrants could perform a wedding… but they had to pay a few bucks to a random church online.

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

It was really an astonishing verdict. A trained Secular Celebrant was unable to legally perform a wedding, but a random schmuck who paid a few bucks online could? How that could be seen as anything but an unfair preference to religious people (who don’t have to have any particular credentials) was lost on me.

CFI filed an appeal shortly after that, but it wasn’t until today — more than a year later — that the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit weighed in on the matter.

And the three-judge panel unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision. Judge Frank H. Easterbrook wrote a blistering decision against the state:

Plaintiffs find these options unacceptable; they are unwilling to pretend to be something they are not, or pretend to believe something they do not; they are shut out as long as they are sincere in following an ethical system that does not worship any god, adopt any theology, or accept a religious label… An accommodation cannot treat religions favorably when secular groups are identical with respect to the attribute selected for that accommodation.

These examples, and the state’s willingness to recognize marriages performed by hypocrites, show that the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment. It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a “religion.” It is absurd to give the Church of Satan, whose high priestess avows that her powers derive from having sex with Satan, and the Universal Life Church, which sells credentials to anyone with a credit card, a preferred position over Buddhists, who emphasize love and peace. A marriage solemnized by a self-declared hypocrite would leave a sour taste in the couple’s mouths; like many others, humanists want a ceremony that celebrates their values, not the “values” of people who will say or do whatever it takes to jump through some statutory hoop.

Wow. Very blunt and very reasonable. (And the judges get bonus points for including the phrase “powers derive from having sex with Satan” in a legal decision.)

CFI, as you can imagine, is thrilled with the result, writing via email:

“This is a major victory for all secular Americans, who despite being part of the fasted-growing belief demographic in the United States, still suffer from discrimination and the special privileges accorded religion,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, President and CEO of CFI. “It is deeply satisfying that the judges of the 7th Circuit have recognized that nonreligious Americans are entitled to the same rights as religious Americans.”

“The court has gotten this exactly right,” lauded Reba Boyd Wooden, Co-Director of the Secular Celebrant program for CFI and Executive Director of CFI’s Indiana branch. “The secular humanists that I know hold their values as dearly as any religion person, and they deserve to be able to celebrate life’s great milestones in a way that reflects those values. Whether a person is atheist, agnostic, humanist, or simply doesn’t want a religious wedding, this decision means they can now have these wonderful occasions solemnized by a celebrant who shares their life-stance.

Congratulations to CFI and Wooden for fighting this drawn-out battle and coming away with a decisive victory.

No word yet on whether the state will try to fight this, but it would be a complete waste of resources if they did. Today’s decision hurts nobody at all. It’s an expansion of rights that allows atheists in Indiana to have weddings officiated by trained celebrants who don’t have to lie about their religious affiliations.

(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were posted earlier.)

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.


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