Indiana marriage law is discriminatory, US court says in ruling for humanists

In a significant victory for nonreligious Americans, the appeals court ordered Indiana to allow secular humanists to officiate at weddings despite a state law barring them from performing nuptials.

Evan Vucci/AP
Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher meets reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008, following the court's Indiana voter photo identification hearing.

A federal appeals court on Monday ordered the State of Indiana to allow secular humanists to officiate at weddings despite a state law barring them from performing nuptials.

The three-judge panel ruled that Indiana’s marriage statute discriminated arbitrarily among religious and ethical beliefs, favoring certain religions over others and disfavoring members of humanist societies who wanted their marriages sanctified by someone holding the same beliefs.

The decision marks a significant victory for nonreligious Americans. The appeals court declared that the First Amendment mandates a neutrality principle under which states may not favor or disfavor religion when compared with similar secular belief systems.

“It is deeply satisfying that the judges … have recognized that nonreligious Americans are entitled to the same rights as religious Americans,” Ronald Lindsay, president of the humanist organization, Center for Inquiry, said in a statement. The center has certified 23 individuals across the nation to perform humanist marriages.

During the litigation Indiana officials defended their statute by saying that humanists were free to have their marriages solemnized by anyone authorized under the state law.

The list includes a member of the clergy, a judge, mayor, city clerk, or court clerk. Some religions that have no formal clergy are granted an accommodation that allows non-clergy to perform the wedding. They include Quakers, members of the Baha’i faith, and Muslims.

The list does not include “secular celebrants” designated to perform weddings for humanists.

The Center for Inquiry and one of its leaders, Reba Boyd Wooden, filed a lawsuit claiming Indiana was discriminating against humanists in violation of the First Amendment and equal protection principles.

During argument before the court, Indiana officials said humanists could circumvent the state’s marriage restrictions by simply calling itself a religion and having a member apply to the Universal Life Church or similar organization to obtain “clergy” credentials.

Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Chicago-based Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals said that the humanists rejected such proposals.

“They are unwilling to pretend to be something they are not, or pretend to believe in something they do not,” he wrote. “They are shut out as long as they are sincere in following an ethical system that does not worship any god, adopt any theology, or accept a religious label.”

Indiana officials had also suggested the humanists could conduct a public wedding ceremony officiated by a humanist celebrant and later have a court clerk solemnize the marriage in accord with state law.

“That’s true enough – but it just restates the discrimination,” Judge Easterbrook said. “Lutherans can solemnize their marriage in public ceremonies conducted by people who share their fundamental beliefs; humanists can’t.”

The judge added that the ability of humanists to “carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in a back office, does not address the injury.”

Easterbrook noted that among religions, Indiana discriminates against Buddhists. State officials defended the decision to bar Buddhists from performing weddings because the state concluded that Buddhists do not treat marriage as a sacrament and they do not have an organizational commitment to marriage. They also do not have formal clergy.

In contrast, Easterbrook said, the Indiana law permits a high priestess of the Church of Satan to solemnize marriages.

“It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion,’ ” he 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 emphasized love and peace,” the judge wrote.

“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.”

Easterbrook said that three states – Florida, Maine, and South Carolina – allow humanists to solemnize marriages if they become notaries public.

The judge said that the plaintiffs would be satisfied if Indiana amended its statute to allow marriages by notaries public. He added that it “hardly seems an excessive request.”

In the meantime, the judge issued an injunction authorizing certified secular humanist celebrants, like Ms. Wooden, to solemnize marriages in Indiana. He said they could perform the ceremonies with full legal effect and without fear of criminal penalties.

“The court has gotten it exactly right,” Wooden said in a statement. “The secular humanists that I know hold their values as dearly as any religious person, and they deserve to be able to celebrate life’s great milestones in a way that reflects those values.”

She added: “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.”

The case was Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk (12-3751).

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