No Solemnity Without Religion; or, Why Can’t Atheists Perform Weddings?

The Center for Inquiry recently lost a case in a federal court in Indiana, in which it challenged a state law limiting the performance of weddings to religious celebrants only.  According to the law, The only people who can be authorized by Indiana to perform weddings are particular government officials and representatives of religions, typically clergy.  For the irreligious, this means a choice between having a religious official perform the wedding, or going before a judge or clerk.  The latter option is cold and bureaucratic; the former prevents the couple from having a ceremony free of religious ideas with which they may not agree.

The court determined that, while religious accommodation dictates that religions must be granted the authority to perform weddings, the irreligious are not due the same accommodation.  Rather, the CFI was complaining about a mere “inconvenience.”  While this disparity is typical of the long-standing tendency to trivialize the experiences of the irreligious, it also speaks to a pervasive cognitive framework regarding solemnity, meaningfulness, and authority.

Firstly, the applicable law here is the “Solemnization Statute.” Even though the officiant’s duties as enumerated by the law are completely secular (filling out the marriage certificate, giving one copy to the couple, and filing the other with the court), the law assumes that this is part of a “solemn” act–that is, earnest and sincere, but also marked by the connotation of religious invocation.  Here, solemnity is an implicitly religious condition, too serious to be left to mere mortals.  There is no principle inherent to the statute that would rule out the possibility of the state vesting solemnization power in a non-religious officiant, so the court had to rely on this connotation to make its decision.

Secondly, the court has evidently based its decision that equal protection need not be provided for the irreligious on the commonly held notion that their experience of life, bereft of the comforts of religion, is meaningless.  If religion is the search for ultimate meaning, the reasoning goes, the irreligious perceive no real meaning in their own lives.  Thus, their concerns about who should perform their wedding can be ignored–after all, it doesn’t really mean anything to them.  We are socialized to ascribe sincerity to a religious appeal for meaningfulness (which, incidentally, is why evidence of insincerity under the sacred canopy is so appealing to our prurient interests), but treat irreligious claims of meaningfulness with skepticism.

Finally, the court exercises a peculiar and paternalistic mixture of civil and religious authority over the irreligious with this decision. The statute and decision are both all about who can exercise state power.  Solemnization authority is inherent in specific state offices, and it is assumed in religious clergy. Opening up this authority to whomever is desired to officiate dilutes the state’s power.  By limiting authority to state actors and clergy, the state forces an irreligious couple to make a choice: conform to the hegemonic idea of marriage as a sacred institution; or implicitly acknowledge that their union is a matter of bureaucratic paperwork.  Either way, the experience of the irreligious is trivialized.

A note on the Universal Life Church: I am well aware that countless weddings have been performed by irreligious officiants in Indiana and elsewhere who have been ordained by the ULC; I’ve attended some myself.  Such an end-run around the law should not be necessary.  The irreligious should not have to put on the guise of religion in order to perform a function that has nothing to do with religion.

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4 comments

  1. […] No Solemnity Without Religion; or, Why Can’t Atheists Perform Weddings?. […]

  2. Thanks so much for your support.

  3. rebawooden · · Reply

    Thanks for your support.

  4. Why are our courts and our government interested in preventing secular marriages? It is not for any of the reasons given by in the latest CFI court decision. Rather it is for two other reasons. 1) The judge wishes to remain in favor with conservative politicians who can advance her career. 2) She also has a deeply ingrained religious faith that has obliterated all other considerations and of course the facts. She had no incentive to rule differently;she knows the most adverse thing that could happen is… some time in the future, her ruling could be appealed and overruled. By that time, she will be long forgotten and perhaps already moved on to another court. She made the safest and most sensible ruling she could, and saved her career. The rights of non-believers are not important in her world and many of her religious supporters have a bone to pick with atheists, or just don’t give a damn.

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