In New York, virtually anyone can perform a wedding ceremony – provided that he or she is first willing to receive online ordination from an entity like the Universal Life Church, a mail-order church that ordains anyone for a fee. At a recent wedding in New York City, Preston Bailey and Theo Bleckmann were married by Joan Rivers, a well-known comedian who received online ordination for the occasion.
California has even looser standards. A law in the Golden State permits county officials to appoint deputies to solemnize marriages. Some counties interpret this provision very liberally and allow just about anyone to pay a fee and receive a one-day commission to preside at a specific ceremony.
Laws in other states, however, are stricter, often reflecting a troubling relationship between religion and government. The state-recognized credentials of clergy from large or familiar religious traditions are rarely, if ever, questioned. But smaller religious groups and non-theistic organizations occasionally encounter difficulties.
Last year, a Wiccan priestess in Virginia ran into problems when she sought to register with officials in Arlington County so she could preside at weddings. F.A. “Literata” Hurley said officials initially refused to register her, asserting that she was not affiliated with a specific house of worship. Practitioners of Wicca often meet in private homes or open-air settings.
The matter was cleared up after attorneys with Americans United wrote to the county and pointed out that they could not limit registration to clergy with fixed-address congregations.
Atheists, humanists and others who reject organized religion find themselves facing a quandary of a different sort: In many states, purely secular celebrants are not authorized to preside at marriages.
Indiana, for example, says that only certain people can perform marriages. If you want to marry a couple, you must, according to state law, be “a member of the clergy of a religious organization…such as a minister of the gospel, a priest, a bishop, an archbishop or a rabbi.” The statute also authorizes mayors, judges, town clerks and court clerks to preside at weddings.
Humanists argue that the policy leaves non-religious couples with limited options: either they accept a religious celebrant that they don’t want or rely on agents of the government.
Many civil officials are happy to offer a secular service, but Reba Boyd Wooden, executive director of the Center for Inquiry-Indiana and herself a secular celebrant, said that option isn’t an adequate solution for many couples.
“Civil officials are usually not available to do marriage ceremonies at the place and time of the couple’s choosing, but only in a government setting such as an office or the courthouse,” Wooden said. “Furthermore, these officials are typically personally unknown to the couple.”
Added Wooden, “Wedding ceremonies, memorials and other life passages are extremely important events. They are life’s milestones, and people should be able to have these ceremonies conducted in a manner and by a person of their choosing.”
The Center for Inquiry and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana are backing Wooden’s effort to overturn the Indiana law, but so far it has not been successful. A federal district court rejected the case last year. The ruling in Center for Inquiry, Inc. v. Clerk, Marion Circuit Court is currently before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases related to same-sex marriage later this year. Those rulings are expected to bring clarity to the question of who gets to marry whom in the United States.
The question of who gets to preside at such ceremonies will have to wait for another day.