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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  • Rusty Shackelford

    There are thousands of non-theists who are legally vested with the proper authority to memorialize any marriage. Religion has nothing to do with marriage.

  • Fred King

    So much for extrapolating from my single experience. :-) Let me rephrase: in Eldorado County, the staff in Placerville and South Lake Tahoe were friendly, readily available, and very helpful. The deputy orientation took a few minutes and needed an appointment. Getting the license was supposed to require an appointment, but since the clerk’s appointment book was blank, she saw us right away. I can’t vouch for other counties, but for us it was easy.

  • Here’s an even better idea…after marriage equality, let’s pass ENDA. This way, when a worker lets their boss know they got married, they don’t have to worry aboiut losing their job.

  • Marry Thomas

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  • UncleBucky

    United Church of Bacon.
    http://unitedchurchofbacon.org/

    I’m sold!

  • dcinsider

    I’m not suggesting there are not pockets where a law can be changed, but in the great scheme of things, I don’t see this as the big priority the author seems to see it as. I respectfully suggest we have bigger fish to fry.

  • Lawlwat

    Eh, but that’s a very authoritarian “everyone’s equal.” I much prefer California’s way: everyone gets to do what they like, as long as they have a valid marriage license and the proper number of witnesses.

  • timncguy

    You shouldn’t imply that religious officiants perform the ceremony free of charge. That’s not true. Most, if not all of them, expect to be paid for their time.

    This would all be solved if all the state required was for the couple to fill out and sigh their marriage license when they obtain it and then return it to city hall to be legally registered after having whatever ceremony they want or no ceremony at all. There should not be any requirement to have anyone religious or secular “officiate” at any kind of ceremony.

  • goulo

    “Most states (if not all) have a process by which any person can apply for a one-day license to marry a couple.”

    Is this true? It’s hard to find summary info about the many different state’s own laws about this.

    http://marriage.about.com/cs/marriagelicenses/a/officiants.htm seems to imply that most states do not have such a process to let you have a non-religious ceremony performed by a friend or someone other than a state judge/official in their office.

    As a simple random check, I looked to find West Virginia’s government website, http://www.legis.state.wv.us/wvcode/code.cfm?chap=48&art=2 , which indeed says only:

    §48-2-401. Persons authorized to perform marriages.

    A religious representative who has complied with the
    provisions of section 2-402, a family court judge, a circuit judge
    or a justice of the supreme court of appeals, is authorized to
    celebrate the rites of marriage in any county of this state.
    Celebration or solemnization of a marriage means the performance of
    the formal act or ceremony by which a man and woman contract
    marriage and assume the status of husband and wife.

    For purposes of this chapter, the term “religious
    representative” means a minister, priest or rabbi and includes,
    without being limited to, a leader or representative of a generally
    recognized spiritual assembly, church or religious organization
    which does not formally designate or recognize persons as
    ministers, priests or rabbis.

    §48-2-402. Qualifications of religious representative for
    celebrating marriages; registry of persons
    authorized to perform marriage ceremonies; special
    revenue fund.

    …and then goes on to describe the exact script/ceremony which must be followed if it’s not a religious ceremony, i.e. if it’s performed by a judge.

    …so I’m not seeing a lot of choice there for non-religious people.

  • goulo

    To me, signing up to be a minister in a church is a trick I would not want to do. I don’t see what’s “snarky” about that. It IS a trick. Joining a “church” and becoming a “minister” in it, when one has no interest in the church or its religion, just to perform a wedding, feels hypocritical to me and should be unnecessary. I don’t WANT to join a church or be a minister; why should I have to in order to perform a wedding in a supposedly free society with separation of church and state?

    Agreed that this is not as important an issue as some others. But if that means that the article should not have been posted, then by that reasoning, americablog should only write about a single issue (whatever happens to be the most important thing).

  • kublaikhan

    Another solution is the way it’s done in many European countries: everyone has to get married in a brief ceremony at the city hall. Then if the couple wants a religious ceremony, they’re free to do so. The town hall ceremony doesn’t have to be the dreary affair that the author implies it must be. Besides, for couples who choose to also have a religious ceremony, the town hall ceremony is really just a formality and not the “real” ceremony in the relgious couple’s eyes (almost like getting a marriage license at city hall, then getting married in a church afterwards). This way, everyone is equal, and if someone wants a ceremony in a church, they can do as they like.

  • tm17

    In California, my understanding is that only about half of the counties have programs for designating people “deputy for a day”. And it is rather inconvenient to deal with the process. Nowadays, I recommend that anyone who wants to solemnize a non-religious wedding should sign up as an officiant with the United Church of Bacon. You can sign up online & they are just as valid as the Universal Life Church (which requires you to acknowledge a “higher power”).

  • Indigo

    Even teapots have tempests. This might be one of them but it’s important to some folks. I have no solution, I don’t think marriage is the cure-all the current fashionista commentators would have it be. Too bad for marriage, really. It can be more than a mortgage and social contract to embrace subura and drive a Lexus.

  • I’m a registered Universal Life Church minister. I like the fact they’re non-denominational and have absolutely no dogma or anything. As near as I can tell, their only rule is they can’t ordinate anyone under the age of 13, due to privacy laws. According to their website, only Pennsylvania and Virginia fail to recognize them.

    http://www.ulc.org/

  • Fred King

    California allows someone to sign up as a “deputy for a day,” which you can do at the county courthouse. When my wife and I got married, my closest friend of many years performed the ceremony, his wife, also a friend of many years, was my best man. Our nieces and nephew completed the wedding entourage. Simple ceremony, only a few thousand dollars (mostly for catering–guests are a sacred obligation), and a wonderful time for all.

  • The eligible officiants differ from state to state, but in many (if not most) locales, it’s not that difficult to have a non-religious ceremony.

    My wife and I were married by a County Clerk in California, and honestly there is NOTHING wrong with it nor do we feel deprived for choosing that particular option. It was actually damned romantic, as far as we were concerned.

    Before that, in my first marriage (hetero-style) in Pennsylvania, we were married by my town’s mayor. We went that route because that’s what we wanted. Not because we were settling for less than optimal.

    While I agree there need to be reforms in the ass-backwards states like Indiana, which sought to limit the participation of secular celebrants, this doesn’t come close to rising to an urgent issue. After marriage equality…let’s win the rest of the war so the homophobic bigots cannot carve out their bigoted exemptions for discriminating against gay people and our families. And how’s about we get that ENDA law passed — and enforced. And laws against anti-LGBT discrimination in housing and business.

    BTW, there are Humanist organizations which are glad to find ways to hook up non-religious folks with those who are legally eligible to solemnize marriages in a purely secular way.

  • nicho

    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.

    It’s not a “trick,” despite your snarky description. The Universal Life Church is as valid as any other religious organization. And it has no doctrine that anyone has to subscribe to or pretend to subscribe to. And it’s not a one-day thing. Many Universal Life Church clergy perform numerous weddings and offer the couple whatever degree of spirituality or non-spirituality they choose.

    Failing that, local officials entitled to perform weddings will often travel to ceremonies outside the city hall ot country buildings.

    A little more research may have prevented this tempest in a teapot.

  • Bill_Perdue

    That’s an issue but a minor one.

    If we win marriage equality then our next battle is for and cleaned up ENDA or a Civil Rights Amendment.

    It’s clear that we need a broad version of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, cleansed of all the garbage added on by Democrats to appease the cults. ENDA or legislation like it has been around for over 40 years and in all that time the Democrats and Republicans have refused to pass it, confirming their status as parties dominated by bigots and those who pander to bigots.

    Even better, we need a robust federal Civil Rights Amendment covering public access, employment and housing for ourselves, people of color, women, trade unionists and immigrant and imported workers that makes it easy to sue and win and provides harsh penalties for offenders.

    We aren’t going to get either from Democrats or Republicans. We’ll have to fight for our rights and create a militant mass movement politically independent from Democrats and Republicans. They’re hustlers on the make and except for trawling for votes and money they don’t give a damn about civil rights and civil liberties.

    And we should be fighting for a decent standard for LGBT and all workers that rejects Obama’s cruel joke of a $10.10 minimum raise with no union contracts and his crappy health care.

  • dcinsider

    For the most part, this is a solution in search of a problem.

    Most states (if not all) have a process by which any person can apply for a one-day license to marry a couple. It is usually done by the Governor’s office. The officiant can be anyone, bride’s father, groom’s mother, favorite bus driver, whatever. It is not a hardship to do this, as I know hundreds of people who have sought and received this designation over the years.

    Was this really worth a blog post?

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