After marriage equality, let’s win secular wedding equality

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could finally grant marriage equality to same-sex couples in all 50 states. But that isn’t enough. We also need wedding equality.

Suppose you are Christian, Muslim or Jewish. At your wedding, you want the celebrant who solemnizes your marriage to be someone important in your life, someone who shares your values and will offer meaningful wisdom. It makes sense to turn to a favorite minister, imam or rabbi.

Secular Americans – atheists, agnostics, humanists and spiritualists who do not subscribe to any particular religion – cannot do the same. Most states deny them the right to choose the secular celebrant they want. They cannot even get a ship’s captain to marry them anymore.

secular wedding minister

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

I do not want to imply that nonbelievers have had to endure anything near what the LGBT community has endured. The latter faced social and legal bigotry for decades, even centuries.

But even if it hasn’t been as bad, it hasn’t been good. Nonbelievers are second-class citizens in many regards, especially on their wedding day. And  LGBT Americans are considerably less likely to be religious than straight Americans.

Generally, nonbelievers have two wedding options: Pretend to be religious or pay a judge.

A common trick is to have the preferred celebrant sign up as a minister online. Everyone pretends for a day that he or she subscribes to the virtual church’s worldview. Alternatively, they can usually find a not-very-strict minister, maybe a laid back Unitarian, to do the wedding.

The other option usually is to have a judge or county clerk solemnize the wedding. A couple can have a “wedding” before their friends and the celebrant they want, but the official solemnizing takes place later in a civic building. How romantic!

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Neither is an ideal way to start a lifetime of married bliss. Those who choose the religious route must turn their back on sincerely held non-belief in order to satisfy the state. They must become hypocrites. Those who choose the judge must rely on a stranger and maybe hold a sham wedding that doesn’t actually count but makes for a nice, expensive show. Then they drop a few more dollars to pay for the judge’s time, a fee not mandated for religious weddings.

Those might not sound like terrible hurdles, but the point is that there shouldn’t be any hurdles. The Constitution guarantees all citizens equality under the law, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. A secular couple should not have to compromise their beliefs or accept a bureaucratic wedding just because they don’t believe in a god.

There’s hope, though. Last year, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against this sort of wedding discrimination in Indiana. These were not bleeding-heart liberals. President Reagan appointed two of them. President Clinton appointed the third.

The court’s opinion pulled no punches:

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.

Indiana chose not to appeal. That’s too bad insofar as national affirmation of wedding equality by the Supreme Court would eliminate the problem.

Indiana joined a handful of other states that have some accommodation for secular weddings. In California, which arguably has the best system, just about anyone can get a one-day license to solemnize a wedding. The happy couple truly can choose the person they want to give meaning to their wedding day.

Oregon State Rep. Mitch Greenlick testifies about the secular wedding bill, which he sponsored. Pro Tip for the gentleman behind him who would raise concerns about losing business to secular celebrants: Don't wear your Union Jack socks when you want something from and American legislature. There's history there. (Image capture from Oregon Legislature video.)

Oregon State Rep. Mitch Greenlick testifies about the secular wedding bill . He is the chief sponsor. (Image capture from Oregon Legislature video.)

Most states, though, still want a holy person to solemnize a marriage. Even in very secular Oregon, that’s true, but it soon could change there.

The Oregon Legislature is considering amending the law. A bill pending in the State House of Representatives’ Committee on Rules (HB 3483) would add legislators, former legislators and celebrants from secular organizations to the list of legal wedding officiants. Presumably legislators are on the list because hey, there’s money to be made in retirement by holding some weddings.

Predictably, Oregon Republicans appear to be lining up against the bill. In committee hearings, they called it a “bad bill” and said they have serious concerns about it. A hearing today could determine if the bill advances out of committee.

Allowing secular weddings would have zero effect on religious Americans. The faithful could still have their priest, rabbi or imam solemnize their wedding.

Nonreligious Americans should not have to jump through extra hoops or pay extra fees to wed. They deserve the same right to choose someone important in their lives to celebrate their wedding, just as their religious neighbors can.


Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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