Court strikes blow for nonbelievers: They can solemnize weddings, too

Nonbelievers in Indiana can now officiate weddings — just like Internet ministers and Satanists.

The Indiana branch of a humanist group, the Center for Inquiry, sued when its leader wasn’t allowed to officiate in Indiana. A state law said only religious officials could “solemnize” weddings – perform the final steps that unite a couple.

Even ministers from the Universal Life Church, which offers online ordination, could officiate. Officials from secular groups such as humanist societies couldn’t.

That presented a problem for humanists and others who wanted to be married by non-ministers. Another problem: The law discriminated among religions. It let Quakers officiate but not Buddhists, even though neither group has clergy, according to the opinion.

In an opinion released Monday, a panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Center for Inquiry promotes ethical living without belief in a deity. The Center argued it plays the same role in the lives of its members as a church, but it wasn’t willing to reclassify itself as a religious organization to perform weddings.

A lower court found in favor of the state. All the Center had to do is call itself a religion, the lower court said — a suggestion that didn’t go over too well given one of the points of humanism is ethics without a god.

The Court of Appeals:

It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize a marriage 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.

The other option, the lower court said, was for humanist couples to have two ceremonies — an “extra-legal” ceremony with a humanist presiding and a second one at a courthouse. This proposed extra step did not fly with the Court of Appeals.

“Humanists’ ability to carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in a back office, does not address the injury,” the opinion read. “A state may accommodate religious views that impose extra burdens on adherents – for example, a state may and sometimes must allow Seventh-day Adventists to get unemployment benefits even though they won’t work on Saturday – but this does not imply an ability to favor religions over non-theistic groups that have moral stances that are equivalent to theistic ones except for non-belief in God or unwillingness to call themselves religions.”

Indiana must now allow certified secular humanist leaders to solemnize marriages. Alternatively, the court said the state could authorize notaries to officiate weddings. While the humanists weren’t willing to declare themselves a religion, they had said they were willing to be certified as notary publics.

The decision was written by Judge Frank Easterbrook and joined by Judges Richard Posner and Anne Claire Williams.

In Florida, Maine and South Carolina, humanists can solemnize marriages if they become a notaries public. Alaska, Massachussets, Vermont and Virginia allow anyone to solemnize a marriage.

“The court has gotten this exactly right,” said Reba Boyd Wooden, the executive director of the Center’s Indiana branch, said in a statement. “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.”

 

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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