(RNS) A federal court has ruled that humanist couples in Indiana can be married by their own “secular celebrants,” something that until now was illegal under state law.

In a unanimous ruling, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said denying humanists the right to be married by celebrants who share their lack of belief in a deity is a denial of their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.

Under a law dating to the 1850s, Indiana required marriages be conducted by religious clergy or government officials. The humanist plaintiffs argued this denied them the right to be married by celebrants who share their philosophy and gave preferential treatment to religious people.

Reba Boyd Wooden, a humanist and a certified “secular celebrant,” was a plaintiff in a legal case seeking freedom for humanists to officiate weddings in Indiana.

Reba Boyd Wooden, a humanist and a certified “secular celebrant,” was a plaintiff in a legal case seeking freedom for humanists to officiate at weddings in Indiana.RNS photo courtesy Reba Boyd Wooden

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The court has gotten this exactly right,” said Reba Boyd Wooden, a humanist and certified “secular celebrant” who was a plaintiff in the case. “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.”

Florida, Maine and South Carolina currently allow humanists to officiate at weddings if they become notaries public. The court ruled Indiana must permit the same. There are approximately two dozen certified secular celebrants nationwide.

Writing for the court, Judge Frank Easterbrook said the current law discriminates not just against humanists, but against members of other faith groups that do not include a deity — Buddhists, Jains, Shintos and Taoists.

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

This win for humanists, atheists and other secularists comes after a recent string of losses. In May, the Supreme Court ruled that public meetings could begin with sectarian prayers, and in June it ruled corporations can be granted exemptions from federal law on the basis of their owners’ religious beliefs.

“This is a major victory for all secular Americans, who despite being part of the fastest-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 the Center for Inquiry, a humanist organization that certifies secular celebrants and brought the case.

Marriage laws are being challenged in North Carolina as well, where a group of United Church of Christ pastors is challenging the state’s requirement that marriages can only be performed if a couple has a legal marriage license. Because North Carolina does not permit gay marriages, any pastor solemnizing a same-sex union would be committing a crime. The UCC pastors and others say their faith compels them to celebrate gay marriages.



  1. I knew it. I knew that as soon as the gays could get married, the next step would be letting the athiests do it too! BUt nobody listened to me.

    A “humanist” marriage doesn’t even make sense! This is a spit in the face to Christian rights. Marriage is a promise made TO JESUS. If the promise my wife and I made to Jesus is on the same level as some “humanist” marriage, then the government is saying my marriage isn’t worth anything. It makes a mockery of ALL marriage and of our faith in Christ.

    But what else can we expect with the Muslim usurper in the Oval Office? Obama Nation is an abomination.

    • And as for marriages before Christianity? Or marriages where Christianity does not exist?

      Sorry, but its a little f’ed up that you view marriages as a christian right, when its a tradition that has been around long before your “Jesus”

    • Jesus was an anarchist who fought the governments, fought against the 1%, and created his own following of anarchist group called The Disciples. He was not created from a virgin birth: virgin births were common in this era of wonderfully religious men putting their hands all over little girls, kind of like they do now over in Africa and overseas. Here are other Messiahs before “Jesus”. I”m sorry, but he wasn’t who you think he is. He’s just a man. http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/biblianazar/esp_biblianazar_16.htm

    • Ronald,

      Please try to contain your myopia. It is completely felonious to assert that “marriage” is/was an exclusively Christian entity. The concept of marriage PRE-DATES Christianity my thousands of years…in fact, the founding of marriage at least equates, if not pre-dates, the polytheistic religious traditions too. Even in current times, many Faiths have within them a marriage tradition – Faiths that may or may not even recognize Jesus.

      You are being ethnocentric. Open your eyes! There is a huge world of various & beautiful cultures out there – ALL of them EQUALLY legitimate to Christianity & ALL of them with a rich tapestry of tradition & heritage.

  2. Michael Glass

    I m surprised to read that civil marriages appear to be quite unusual in at least some states of the United States. In Australia there have been civil marriage celebrants for many years and in 2012, 71.9% of marriages were conducted by civil celebrants. This includes registry office officials and independent civil marriage celebrants who perform the majority of civil marriages.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for painting a pciture of hope & the US’ hopeful future. Culturally, we are so very behind, due in a very large way, of the rest of us having to drag the HIGH-RESISTANCE collection BOAT-ANCHORs known as Conservative Christianity, Dominionists and Christian Reconstructionists. Ugh!

  3. Let’s be honest: Atheism, humanism, etc. are nothing but religions anyway. Everybody knows that by now. Good to see that the pretense of being non-religious “secularists” has been disproved in court. Atheism and humanism are just as much a religion as Buddhism.

    (If you don’t worship God, you ultimately wind up worshipping yourself, and that’s the hallmark of atheism and humanism. Heh!).

  4. Congratulations!

    When my wife and I got married here in Michigan, the law required that the celebrant be a “minister of the Gospel”. It also stated that “for those with peculiar beliefs, such as the Quakers, marriage according to the traditions of their congregation is allowed”. Being in a UU Fellowship, we still had a marriage ceremony that didn’t violate our beliefs – but what about others with reeality based beliefs that aren’t in UU Fellowships? This victory for honesty in Indiana is a big step forward for our society.

    Oh, and I have to call Poe on ronald.

  5. If you want to know how confusing and unsettled the “Is humanism a religion?” question is, just look at the first footnote in the Court’s opinion. The individual plaintiff used to work for The Humanist Society, which did classify itself as a “religious organization” in Indiana. The Center for Inquiry, for which she now works, does not. A lot of this is self-definition, which is why the same problem will or won’t occur in various other states.

    • Garson –

      Yes, and that’s mostly due to our society’s ambiguity on sorting out what “religion” means. There are two definitions that are used. Compare these dictionary definitions:

      The top definition in the “World English Dictionary” :
      religion (rɪˈlɪdʒən)
      — n
      1. belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny

      Compare that to the top definition at dictionary.com:
      re·li·gion/rɪˈlɪdʒən/ Show Spelled [ri-lij-uhn] Show IPA
      1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

      The difference comes down to the supernatural. People can mean one of two things when they say “religion”. People might mean “belief in the supernatural”, as seen in the WED definition, (let’s call that meaning “A”), OR they could mean “beliefs that give meaning and purpose, often including a moral code” (let’s call that meaning “B”), which would fit in the dictionary.com definition.

      You can easily see either one used by people in our society. Notice Doc’s post above. He’s using meaning B (since he’s including belief systems that give purpose/meaning/morals as “religions” without requiring belief in the supernatural). However, in the article, meaning A is often used (since it states that beliefs without the supernatural aren’t “religions”). So many arguments and aggressive exchanges really come down to a classic equivocation fallacy, or just to different people using different definitions.

      I think we need two different terms for these two different meanings, and I think that as a society, we are slowly getting to that. It seems that one option – one taken by the dictionary.com defintion, is to use “religion” for meaning B (including non-supernatural belief systems), and to use something else when only supernatural beliefs are spoken of. For that, terms like “woo”, “fairy tales”, “the sky daddy” and so on are being increasingly used.

      Those terms are derogatory, so others are likely better, like “supernatural religion”, or “supernatural beliefs”, with “religion” including the broader definition.

      My thoughts, anyway.

  6. Religious celebrants of all faiths have been co-opted by the State. All marriages are performed by the authority of the State. I think that “marriages” should be performed by civil authorities and if the couple wants a blessing from a church or from a non-church then that’s what should occur AFTER the civil wedding has been performed.

    • Its the other way around, civil authority to perform marriage ceremonies was co-opted by religious folks who convinced the government to write a blatantly discriminatory law to favor themselves. Now it is off the books.

      Nobody ever prevents a religious group from performing ceremonies in accordance with their beliefs (except in NC at the moment).

      But marriage is about having the civil authority endorse a union. In the secular government of the US, the particulars of the religious ceremony or beliefs entailed with marriage were never considered relevant. It always begins and ends with the state.

  7. Jim-

    I agree wholeheartedly – and I’m a Christian pastor! In my state (VA) the constitution was changed to narrowly define marriage to be one man-one woman after I was “deputized” by the gov’t as authorized officiant.

  8. Yep, religions should have never been the litmus for marriage. It is the commitment of two people. Did you accept Mormon marriage? How about Jehovah’s Witness conducted wedding? How about Jewish or Scientologists or Buddhist or Hindu? It isn’t the religion … or whomever god that marries people. It is people folks. It is about people …. not gods or religions ….

  9. If the ruling was to strike a bad law from the 19th century, it is way overdue. However, not knowing Indiana law, could a non-believer be a JP? My mom’s second marriage was officiated by an attorney who was a JP (this was in New York). I don’t remember God being mentioned and I was not offended in the least. (I am practicing Christian.) Ultimately the wedding should the 2 people and what they want.

    • Justices of the peace aren’t specifically mentioned in the statute, but it does allow for mayors, judges, and local municipal or court clerks to perform marriages. These are the only explicitly “non-religious” individuals allowed to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.