Federal Court Knocks Out 1850s Indiana Law Forcing Non-Religious Couples to be Married by Clergy or Government Officials

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Reba Boyd Wooden (photo: Center for Inquiry)

Humanists have scored a big victory in Indiana after contesting the state’s 19th century  law mandating marriages be performed only by clergy or public officials.


The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a legal challenge from the secular Center for Inquiry (CFI), which argued Indiana’s 1850s-era law was unconstitutional. The humanists claimed the First Amendment guarantees their right to have celebrants who do not believe in a deity to orchestrate wedding ceremonies.


“The court has gotten this exactly right,” Reba Boyd Wooden, a humanist and certified secular celebrant who was a plaintiff in the case, said in a prepared statement. “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.”


Judge Frank Easterbrook noted in his opinion (pdf) that the law also discriminated against members of non-Western groups like Buddhists who don’t worship a deity.


“It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion,’” he wrote. “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. 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 trial court in 2012 dismissed CFI’s case, saying their complaint was an “inconvenience,” and asserting religions’ rights to special accommodations not due secularists.


In having its law struck down, Indiana will join Florida, Maine and South Carolina as states that allow humanists to officiate at weddings. Those states, though, do require that the humanists are notaries public. Easterbrook’s decision provides for Indiana to mandate the same, which is agreeable to the plaintiffs.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Humanists Win Right to Solemnize Their Own Weddings in Indiana (by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service)

Federal Court: Indiana Must Allow Secular Celebrants to Solemnize Marriages (Center for Inquiry)

Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk (Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

Atheists May Not Perform Marriage Ceremonies, Federal Judge Rules (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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