Beliefs Politics

Court upholds Indiana’s ban on secular wedding officiants

RNS photo courtesy John Kiel and Michelle Landrum

(RNS) A federal court in Indiana has rejected atheists' requests to preside at wedding ceremonies, saying only clergy or public officials are licensed to solemnize marriages.

A lawsuit filed by the Indiana chapter of the Center for Inquiry argued that an Indiana law that requires marriages to be “solemnized” — made official by signing a marriage license — only by clergy, judges, mayors or local government clerks — violates the Constitution.

But Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled on Friday (Nov. 30) that marriage has religious roots. Therefore, government regulation of marriage is an act of religious accommodation — not endorsement — and protected by the Constitution.

She also noted that Indiana's law does not limit who may marry the plaintiffs, but only who may sign their license.

“We in no way intend to question or disparage plaintiff’s opinions regarding the institution of marriage,” Barker wrote in her ruling. “But we must gently remind plaintiffs that the free exercise clause (of the Constitution) is not a guarantee against inconvenience.”

CFI, a 24,000-member secular humanist organization based in New York, had argued that barring “secular celebrants” from solemnizing marriages provides preferential treatment to religious celebrants. CFI began certifying celebrants to perform marriages and other ceremonies in 2009.

John Kiel and Michelle Landrum, two Kentucky residents who wished to be married in Indiana by Reba Boyd Wooden, a CFI-certified secular celebrant.

John Kiel and Michelle Landrum, two Kentucky residents who wished to be married in Indiana by Reba Boyd Wooden, a CFI-certified secular celebrant.

CFI's lawsuit was filed last October on behalf of John Kiel and Michelle Landrum, two Kentucky residents who wished to be married in Indiana by Reba Boyd Wooden, a CFI-certified secular celebrant. All three were co-plaintiffs in the suit.

Ron Lindsay, CFI’s president, promised an appeal of Barker's ruling.

“It would be difficult to imagine a clearer way to classify nonbelievers as second-class citizens,” Lindsay said in a statement. “A wedding is one of the most important ceremonies in a person’s life, and it is just as meaningful to atheists as it is to theists. It’s disappointing that a 21st-century court refused to recognize this reality.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller described the current law as a “very reasonable requirement.”

“The court found that couples who wish to marry without involving clergy have many alternatives for doing so,” he said. “My office will continue to defend the statute if necessary.”

DSB/AMB END WINSTON

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

3 Comments

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  • I’m sorry but this Judge is obviously ignorant of the meaning of the Establishment clause of the first amendment. The establishment clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another. What is this if not preferential treatment of Theists? And may I just point out to the under-educated judge that: Marriage does not have it’s roots in Religion. Religion did not form the institution of marriage, and neither did it strengthen it in any way shape or form. Marriage was around long before the Judeo-Christian church. Perhaps a quick education of humanity before the Judeo-Christian church came to power would shed some light on the subject Judge Barker?

  • In my opinion, Clergy should not be licensed by the State to perform Marriages. There should be a clear separation of Church and State by keeping Clergy out of State involvement. There should a ceremony for the State sanction and a ceremony for Religious sanction, if couples so chose. This would alleviate a lot of the confusion and conflict we have around marriage these days.

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