WILMINGTON, N.C. (RNS) Amanda Holowaty didn’t need God to get married. She just needed her husband Mike.

Amanda Holowaty of Leland, N.C., holds a photo of she and her husband Mike Holowaty on their wedding day in May 2012. They chose a humanist celebrant to match their atheist values. Photo by Amanda Greene/WilmingtonFAVS.com

Amanda Holowaty of Leland, N.C., holds a photo of she and her husband Mike Holowaty on their wedding day in May 2012. They chose a humanist celebrant to match their atheist values. Photo by Amanda Greene/WilmingtonFAVS.com


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When the Wilmington atheist couple decided to join their lives a year ago, they knew they wanted a secular wedding celebrant, but their families weren’t so sure.

Her family is Methodist and his is “generally spiritual.” And they worried about even telling Mike’s grandmother, who is Eastern Orthodox.

So they found a wedding celebrant ordained through the Humanist Society, Han Hills, who allowed their family members to read a spiritual poem.

“Nobody seemed to notice that we didn’t mention God,” Holowaty said. “People came up afterward and said it was one of the best weddings they’d seen.”

With the rise of the “nones” – the 20 percent of Americans without a religious affiliation – more couples are looking for wedding celebrants who don’t mind skipping God’s blessing of the ceremony altogether.

More national atheist and humanist agencies such as the Humanist Society and the Center for Inquiry are developing ordaining programs to establish nontheist ministers in most states to perform weddings and funerals. CFI began its certification program in 2009.

There are currently 138 celebrants listed as ordained through the Humanist Society, and some perform weddings in multiple states. The Center for Inquiry has 23 celebrants.

Because of the demand she’s seeing for marriage and funeral celebrants, Florida humanist writer and blogger Jennifer Hancock is considering writing a book about the secular approach to marriage.

What’s missing, she says, is advertising for leaders in the humanist community who can fulfill ceremonies for life cycle events. Only a handful of the ordained celebrants listed on the society’s website also advertise their services on a personal page.

Former Army medic Richard Cotter advertises his services in and around New York at humanistcelebrations.com. California Humanist minister William Rausch advertises his memorial, baby naming and wedding services at ebcelebrant.com.

“As soon as you do the advertising, people are like yeah, I want that. When I got married, I was worried. I didn’t want any religious references in my wedding because I didn’t want to start out the most important relationship of my life with a lie,” Hancock said.

“Some of my most popular posts are about grief, marriage relationships and parenting. That’s all stuff that a traditional minister would help you with.”

The creative elements of a humanist wedding don’t differ much from a religious one. There are sand-mixing ceremonies, candle-lighting ceremonies and walking down an aisle in a white dress. Vows are typically written by the couples themselves, said Hills, whose company is called Leap of Humanity.

Hills already has eight weddings booked this year across North Carolina and is starting to book weddings for 2014. And he’s only been formally advertising his services for a few months.

“You need a certain personality to do this. If you’re mousy, and you can’t think in a crisis, this isn’t for you,” he said, laughing. “It’s the only job where you can look out and if you see old ladies crying, then you’re doing a good job. It’s an honor to be given this place of reverence.”

Han Hills, a humanist celebrant in Wilmington, NC, performs a wedding at Wrightsville Beach. Photo courtesy of Leap of Humanity

Han Hills, a humanist celebrant in Wilmington, NC, performs a wedding at Wrightsville Beach. Photo courtesy of Leap of Humanity


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

North Carolina’s celebrant numbers have grown to seven, while New York and California have the most, at about 20 each. But there are some states without any Humanist celebrants listed, such as Wyoming, West Virginia or Wisconsin.

Humanist Society program coordinator Sadie Rothman said she gets at least two requests for Humanist celebrant applications each month. But the process to become a celebrant requires five character references and training sessions.

Becoming a wedding celebrant outside of an established faith system can present legal challenges, depending on the state. In North Carolina, marriages performed through the online Universal Life Church before 1981 are considered valid. But the legality of ULC marriages after that date is in question, according to state marriage laws.

Because the Humanist Society is a religious nonprofit associated with the American Humanist Association, they are considered a valid marrying entity in the state. But Indiana Humanist celebrants certified through the Center for Inquiry lost a legal battle in December 2012 over the validity of the marriages they performed.

Mike Werner, past president of the American Humanist Association, said the demand for Humanist celebrants will grow to include traditional ordained ministers interested in officiating nontheist ceremonies.

Amanda and Mike Holawaty didn’t want to settle for a justice of the peace. They wanted to celebrate their values in a scenic wedding near the ocean.

“You see weddings in movies and on TV, the bride being given away and walking down the aisle,” she said. “It was really the same desire for us, just minus the religious aspect.”

(Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values.)

36 Comments

  1. A whole article on humanist weddings, and no mention of the hundreds of Unitarian Universalist ministers across the country who do Humanist weddings? Ouch. Here is a link to find a UU minister near you. They often do Pagan or Earth Centered weddings too. http://www.uua.org/directory/congregations/index.php

    • Unitarian Universalism spends quite a bit of effort on spiritualism and even faith. And while there is some overlap between atheism or at least those who describe themselves as agnostic and UU, there are differences. Most atheists or humanists want to avoid faith and spiritualism altogether … example http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/atheism/index.shtml

  2. That is just fine. For genuine democracy there must be responsible freedom, and that freedom absolutely must extend to religion. Because of the ancient, historical evil practiced between freedom and religion, between religion and government, the Framers very wisely amended our Constitution almost immediately to safeguard religion and churches and to safeguard politics and religion by maintaining separation between them. As with too many aspects of our amended constitutional life, that separation has been increasingly ignored, violated, and we are witnessing the sad and evil results of that in our public life today. A great many members of Congress should be applying for jobs as “pastors” of mean-spirited, evangelical churches.

  3. Oh, and I should add:
    Big Kudos to Amanda Greene and RNS for this important and timely article! I’ve seen many friends and relatives deal with this issue in many different ways – from coming up with their own solution, finding someone who can officiate, to the empty, faking it, Christian wedding (most common if the couple are both younger).

    Jon

  4. this is for the “Interfaith” ULC’s such as the Universal Life Church in Modesto, CA. or the ULC Monastery in Tucson, AZ. and others, that have NO real doctrine of faith, who ordain anyone or anything including dogs or cats. Please DO NOT confuse the Universal Life Church World Headquarters of Carrabelle, Florida with these so called churches. The Universal Life Church World Headquarters has a traditional doctrine of faith. Our ordinations are legal, valid and accepted throughout North Carolina, the USA and the world. For more information, go to: http://www.ulcnetwork.com

  5. PLEASE NOTE This article speaks on the non legal status for the “Interfaith” ULC’s such as the Universal Life Church in Modesto, CA. or the ULC Monastery in Tucson, AZ. and others, that have NO real doctrine of faith, who ordain anyone or anything including dogs or cats. Please DO NOT confuse the Universal Life Church World Headquarters of Carrabelle, Florida with these so called churches. The Universal Life Church World Headquarters has a traditional doctrine of faith. Our ordinations are legal, valid and accepted throughout North Carolina, the USA and the world. For more information, go to: http://www.ulcnetwork.com

  6. Secular humanists claim that they are not a religion, but then they insist on having “humanist chaplains” and “nontheist ministers.” Yeah, right.

    • Hey Doc – I don’t follow your logic. Why not have humanist chaplains and nontheist ministers if the engaged feel better about it? Why would you want to interfere with their desires and plans? How does it hurt you? Are there copyrights on the names? Is it illegal to use those names. Do definitions of words and titles ever change meaning over time?

      • Hey, I have no objection to members of the Humanist religion, like all religions, having their own chaplains and ministers. Oh no no. But since that is the case, it’s time for Humanists to eschew dishonesty and publicly acknowledge that they are indeed a religion just like all the rest. Fair enough?

        • By that logic, you could call any organized school of thought or social movement “a religion” when it’s convenient for you to do so. One might consider this merely pigeonholing but the use the very term that many consider to be derogatory toward their goal of achieving secular awareness is nothing more than a light insult. They’re called chaplains because this is a position and title already well established throughout many organizations. It makes no sense to petition for a completely new and different position when the central support structure is already in place. While Secularism may be considered a religious position, it is most certainly NOT a religion in of itself,

        • I think humanists are not dishonest by using their own practitioners as “chaplains” or “ministers.” To perform a marriage ceremony, people need some solemnity and some awe. This is normal human nature. However, the ritual must remain secular without any mention of any divinity or divination. So, IT’S NOT RELIGION because religion implies divination.
          It is, in fact, a simple theatrical contract, nothing more. Humanists are honestly anti-religionists.

    • no humanists i’ve heard of use the term “minister”. yes, there are humanist chaplains, but not ministers. the people who perform weddings are called celebrants.

    • Doc- I get the impression you do not understand what a true atheist is. We beleive in NO spirituallity in any form. No god, no devil, no miracles, no pagan beliefs, only science. Therefore there is no religion. So therefore I am confused where the chaplans and ministers come from that you are talking about. My atheist family would never consider the ULC for use for anything concerning ceremony. Ever that is too much religious. Not sure what you are talking about.

    • Greg, it’s “By the authority vested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The State authorizes who can marry couples.

      I’ve performed over 2,000 in 40 years of marrying couples, 95% of those were Secular ceremonies, no religious language, a deeply meaningful ceremony for the couple and their guests. I’ve been a Celebrant endorsed by the Humanist Society for 3 years and value my association.

        • Greg, I simply have to comment= Marriage is NOT historically religious. Not even slightly. Google “history of marriage” or anything to that affect. (Sorry to correct you… I hope you did want to know!)

      • Terry, hi!
        Who will perform my funeral in a secular format? I have no idea. I wil be cremated, but I would like some solemnity, not too much, but some nice words there.

  7. Kevin R McCoy

    Mexico sorted this in the 1860′s. You marry at the civil registry, period. All the other stuff is of no legal value. Mexicans are very religious, most of them roman catholic and they do the church thing mainly as a cultural/social event and the state has no business in it. Also the church in Mexico has no say state affairs. Why in the US, doesn’t the state sanction marriage just like it does with births and deaths? Why do you have to go to some dubious organization to make your marriage legal is a mystery to me. We criticize Islamic countries because their laws are dictated by the Qumran but the US and many other so called developed countries let religion control the lives of its citizens.

  8. Update on CFI’s marriage lawsuit against the State of Indiana law on who can solemnize marriages in the state. The case is on appeal to the 7th circuit court of appeals in Chicago. Oral arguments were heard on Friday, April 19. Don’t understand what the case is about? Read. Listen to audio of oral arguments.

    http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/sound/external/rt.12-3751.12-3751_04_19_2013.mp3
    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/why_is_cfi_challenging_the_indiana_statute_which_specifies_who_can_solemniz/

  9. There are also dozens of Humanistic rabbis and Leaders/Madrikhim-ot/Vegvayzers ordained and certified by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism over the past 25 years who have done hundreds of secular and culturally Jewish ceremonies. For more information or a list of celebrants, visit http://iishj.org/about-alumni.html.

  10. Ann Marie Coleman

    Interesting article. I am an Ordained Minister who has been doing non-theistic weddings for more than forty years. I encourage folks to write as much of their own ceremony as they are able.

    It’s a great adventure meeting with people and finding out
    what is important to them about being married. I have done more that 2,000 weddings in all kinds of settings. People have so many reasons for choosing to be married these days, one of my favorites being “it’s just time”!

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