Federal Court: Indiana Must Allow Secular Celebrants to Solemnize Marriages

July 14, 2014

July 14, 2014

In a landmark victory for nonreligious Americans, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled that the state of Indiana must allow marriages to be performed and solemnized by Secular Celebrants, such as those certified by the Center for Inquiry (CFI), the secular group that brought the case.

In an opinion written by Judge Frank Easterbrook, the court recognized that for groups such as the Center for Inquiry, their belief system is “entitled to the benefit of the First Amendment’s neutrality principle, under which states cannot favor (or disfavor) religion vis-a-vis comparable secular belief systems.” Judge Easterbrook cited CFI’s contention that its worldview “is equivalent to religion except for non-belief in God,” and that “those who embrace that secular system want their own views to be expressed by celebrants at marriages, [and] the state must treat them the same way it treats religion.”

“This is a major victory for all secular Americans, who despite being part of the fasted-growing belief demographic in the United States, still suffer from discrimination and the special privileges accorded religion,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, President and CEO of CFI. “It is deeply satisfying that the judges of the 7th Circuit have recognized that nonreligious Americans are entitled to the same rights as religious Americans.”

“The court has gotten this exactly right,” lauded Reba Boyd Wooden, Co-Director of the Secular Celebrant program for CFI and Executive Director of CFI’s Indiana branch. “The secular humanists that I know hold their values as dearly as any religion person, and they deserve to be able to celebrate life’s great milestones in a way that reflects those values. 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 U.S. District Court in 2012 dismissed the case brought by CFI, calling CFI’s complaint a mere “inconvenience,” and asserting religions’ rights to special accommodations not enjoyed by those with secular world views. The case was appealed and argued before the 7th Court of Appeals in May of 2013.

Addressing whether secular officiants should simply settle for obtaining “clergy” status through quasi-religious mail-order enterprises, or whether secular organizations should just refer to themselves as “religious” despite being explicitly nonreligious, Judge Easterbrook dismissed the idea, saying it would only serve to make hypocrites of nonreligious couples and groups. Judge Easterbrook rightly pointed out that the plaintiffs “are unwilling to pretend to be something they are not, or pretend to believe something they do not; 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.” Judge Easterbrook also denounced the contention that secular couples have their unions solemnized at a later date by a clerk of the court as suggesting secular celebrants preside over a “sham ceremony.”

CFI gratefully acknowledges the work Kenneth J. Falk, Legal Director of ACLU of Indiana, and the lead attorney on this case. Plaintiffs in the case are Center for Inquiry, Inc., Reba Boyd Wooden, John Kiel, and Michelle Landrum.

The full decision is available here.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI‘s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.