Religion Has Monopoly On Marriage

May 28, 2009

Picture taken by Reba Boyd Wooden at a same-sex committment ceremony held at CFI Indiana.

When a couple wants to get married, they have to obtain a marriage license from a government office. Then in all   50 states (DC is an exception) they are required to have an authorized person "solemnize" the marriage.  This means that a second person who is authorized by the state probably performs some kind of ceremony but most importantly signs the marriage license. 

In 25 states only a religious clergyperson can solemnize a marriage, in 21 states it can either be a religious clergyperson or certain designated judicial officials, in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin it can be either a clergyperson or the couple themselves (although in Wisconsin for a couple to do it themselves it must be in accordance with the practices of a religious group), in Massachusetts a representative of the Ethical Culture Society in addition to a clergy person or certain judicial officials may do the honors, and in the District of Columbia unsigned marriage licenses are valid.  There are exceptions such as in Indiana a member of the Indiana Bar Association can be deputized in order to sign a license and I have heard of other arrangements that will work in various states.

It is my opinion that once a couple (same sex or opposite sex) obtains a marriage license and they both sign it in the presence of an official, they should have all the legal rights that come with traditional marriage.  Call it a Civil Union, Civil Marriage, or whatever. Then if that couple wants to have a public ceremony in the presence of their friends and family, want to have the union blessed by a priest, or sanctioned by their religious clergy, that is fine but it should not be required in order to have a legal contract between them. 

The present marriage laws in most states present a problem for a couple who do not want a religious ceremony.  Unless they are personally acquainted with someone who has the legal standing to satisfy the law, they are reduced to an impersonal cermony in a government setting.  These officials are usually not available to do marriage ceremonies at the place and time of the couple’s choosing. 

Persons with religious affiliations can have their clergyperson who shares their views and with whom they probably have a personal relationship officiate their ceremony.  Also, some couples want a person who has a neutral stance when the families of the couple are of different faiths.  This leads to my point that there is a need for "secular celebrants" to be recognized by state law.  Granting the religious the privilege of choosing their celebrant while denying this privilege to those who are not affiliated or desire a "neutral" celebrant is arguably unconstitutional.

Yes, people get around these laws by getting online "mail order" ordinations or from some religious organization.  This in most cases makes a mockery of the religious requirement plus people should not be forced to go to these measures against their convictions. 

We at CFI need to formulate a program for certifying "secular celebrants" and work to get the laws changed to accept them as authorized persons to solemnize marriages.  I approached several members of the Indiana State Legislature this year about sponsoring a bill to change Indiana’s law.  Though a few said they would vote in favor if it and were in agreement, none were willing to sponsor the bill.   Legal action may be necessary to get this accomplished.