Religious Law

Secular humanists must be allowed to officiate marriages in Indiana, 7th Circuit says


A federal appeals court has struck down an Indiana law that allows clergy of religious groups to solemnize marriages, but not officials from groups of secular humanists.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the law violated the equal protection clause and the First Amendment. Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote the panel opinion (PDF) joined by Judges Richard Posner and Ann Claire Williams. How Appealing and a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union noted the holding, while the Christian News Network has a story.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is the Center for Inquiry, a humanist group that promotes ethical living without belief in a deity. The other plaintiff is Reba Boyd Wooden, the center’s executive director and a certified “secular celebrant” with the center, who wanted to perform a marriage for two members.

The 7th Circuit remanded with instructions to the federal trial court to enter an injunction requiring Indiana to allow secular humanists to perform marriages without risk of criminal penalty.

The opinion noted that three states allow humanists to solemnize marriages by becoming notaries public, and said the district court should be receptive to a motion to modify the injunction if Indiana amends its law in a similar fashion.

The Indiana statute allows marriages to be solemnized by clergy of religious organizations; judges and other specified public officials; as well as some religions without clergy such as Quakers, German Baptists and the Baha’i faith. Buddhists also have no clergy, and they would be excluded from performing marriages under the statute. Yet Wiccans would be allowed to perform marriages under the law, Indiana’s lawyer acknowledged at oral arguments.

A federal judge had upheld the Indiana statute, pointing out that a humanist group that calls itself a religion could perform marriages, as could anyone who obtains clergy credentials from the Universal Life Church.

Indiana had also argued that members of the Center for Inquiry could still be married in a three-step process that involved getting a license, having a ceremony celebrated by a secular leader, then having a government official such as a clerk court solemnize the marriage.

The 7th Circuit rejected that alternative. “Humanists’ ability to carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in a back office, does not address the injury of which plaintiffs complain,” Easterbrook wrote. He also rejected Indiana’s suggestion that a secular group could perform marriages if it called itself a religion.

“It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion,’ ” Easterbrook said. “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.”

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