A federal court in Texas has rejected a lawsuit that aims to allow secular celebrants to perform marriages in that state.
Under Texas law, only members of the clergy and some government officials can perform marriages. The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a secular humanist group and an ally of Americans United, argues that this system is unfair because it grants a special privilege to religious groups that isn’t granted to secular ones. CFI sued over the matter, but U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle ruled against the organization Aug. 16.
Boyle asserted in her ruling that “the state has an interest in … ensuring the respect, solemnity, and gravity of marriage ceremonies.” She added that only religious leaders and government officials such as judges can “reasonably be expected” to maintain an appropriate level of decorum.
Nicholas Little, CFI’s general counsel, called the ruling in Center for Inquiry, Inc. v. Warren “ridiculous” and vowed to appeal.
“What business is it of the state of Texas what the level of solemnity in your marriage ceremony is?” Little told The Washington Post. “What if you want to get married by an Elvis impersonator? That’s not the state’s business!”
CFI has pursued similar litigation in other states successfully. Thanks to its lawsuits, secular celebrants can now perform marriages in Indiana and Illinois.
Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, told The Post he believes CFI has a solid argument.
“It’s obviously unconstitutional because it gives a benefit to religious groups and denies that same benefit to comparable secular groups,” Feldman said. “However – and this is a big ‘however’ – this is also an exemplar of the kind of law that might well survive judicial scrutiny.”
Feldman added that the court might have been unwilling to strike down Texas’s law because “it’s such a well-established tradition” and they “don’t want to rock the boat.”
Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Church & State Editor Rob Boston criticized the ruling and asserted that Little has a valid point.
“[W]hat possible interest does the government have in ensuring that people have solemn and grave weddings?” Boston asked. “Solemnity is the last thing some people want at their wedding – they’d rather have fun. Some people go to Las Vegas and get married by Elvis Presley impersonators, others have Klingon weddings and so on. A wedding day is about what the couple wants. If they want solemnity, that’s fine, but those who prefer frivolity should be able to have that instead.”
Concluded Boston, “Texas’s marriage law clearly extends a benefit to religious leaders that is not given to similarly situated secular officiants. It should be struck down on appeal.”