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Who gets to perform marriages?

In Texas, the answer to that question is quite limited, and a lawsuit to change that just suffered a legal setback.

Texas couples who hope to marry — and leave religion completely out of it — suffered a setback last week.

A Texas judge ruled on Friday to dismiss a civil suit challenging the state’s long-standing law that says only government officials and clergy can perform marriages in the state.

The Center for Inquiry, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes secular values, filed the suit last year against Dallas County Clerk John Warren. In its complaint — brought on behalf of two Texas members of the nonprofit group who want to officiate weddings — the center charged that the law is unconstitutional because it violates nonreligious Americans’ rights as spelled out in the First and 14th amendments, as well as the establishment clause.

In her decision, U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle conceded that the Texas statute may provide a “benefit to religious groups and their adherents over nonreligious ones” but said no “constitutional rights are violated” by the law.

She wrote that “the state has an interest in … ensuring the respect, solemnity, and gravity of marriage ceremonies” and that the “Statute in this case rationally serves that purpose.” Only judges and religious leaders can “reasonably be expected” to maintain the appropriate ceremonial dignity, Boyle wrote.

The center, which has forced two other states to allow secular officiants through similar lawsuits over the past decade, said it would appeal the ruling. Warren’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Nicholas Little, the center’s vice president and general counsel, said he was shocked by the judge’s ruling, which he called “ridiculous.”

“What business is it of the state of Texas what the level of solemnity in your marriage ceremony is?” Little asked in an interview. “What if you want to get married by an Elvis impersonator? That’s not the state’s business!”

Many years ago – circa 1991, as best I can recall – I attended the wedding of a friend of mine and her then-boss at the We’ve Only Just Begun Chapel of Love in (of course) Las Vegas. This was, as the proprietors of said chapel took pains to note, including via a document acknowledging such, a 100% legally binding marriage. That didn’t deter my friend or her soon-to-be-legally-wedded-husband, who were in Vegas and thought “hey! we should get married at one of these silly chapels! won’t that be fun!”, because they were a couple of dumbasses. My friend later got another friend, a lawyer who specialized in maritime law, to help her get this marriage annulled. My point here is that the level of solemnity has never had anything to do with how legal a marriage is.

(For the record, we were all in town to attend COMDEX, and the “let’s get married!” idea sprung from having too much free time after the exhibition halls closed. My friend and her boss had traveled in from California, and I had happened to run into them one evening, the evening they decided to do this dumb stunt. My main regret from all this is that I didn’t have a camera.)

“It’s obviously unconstitutional because it gives a benefit to religious groups and denies that same benefit to comparable secular groups,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard professor of constitutional law. “However — and this is a big ‘however’ — this is also an exemplar of the kind of law that might well survive judicial scrutiny.”

Courts may not want to declare state marriage laws like Texas’s unconstitutional because “it’s such a well-established tradition” and they “don’t want to rock the boat,” Feldman said. Laycock agreed, noting he was “pleasantly surprised” to learn of the center’s lawsuit.

“This hasn’t come up very often before because everyone is so used to it and because it just seemed the natural order of things,” Laycock said.

Little said the center, which began authorizing nonreligious Americans to perform weddings in 2009, wants to “fight this battle now” because the country’s shifting religious demographics demand action. He pointed to statistics suggesting that the United States is increasingly less religious — including in a recent Gallup poll that found the number of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2018.

The center plans to file more lawsuits against a range of states in the coming months, Little said.

“There’s this growing number of secular people, of agnostic or atheistic people who follow no particular religion, who want to have their wedding reflect their values,” Little said. “So we’re saying, ‘Hey! Add an extra category of people who can solemnize marriages!’ ”

[…]

That’s another reason Little is determined to advocate for the legalization of secular wedding officiants across the country. He said that there aren’t enough paths for nonreligious men and women to wed in the United States, and that Internet ordination, which is legal in Texas but was recently barred in Tennessee, isn’t a fair alternative. Little called it ludicrous that some nonreligious people must profess false sentiments online to earn a possibly bizarre religious affiliation — all in pursuit of the wedding they want.

That’s another reason Little is determined to advocate for the legalization of secular wedding officiants across the country. He said that there aren’t enough paths for nonreligious men and women to wed in the United States, and that Internet ordination, which is legal in Texas but was recently barred in Tennessee, isn’t a fair alternative. Little called it ludicrous that some nonreligious people must profess false sentiments online to earn a possibly bizarre religious affiliation — all in pursuit of the wedding they want.

Another wedding I once attended was in 1992, in Arizona, in which two dear friends were married by another dear friend, who had written off to some mail-order church in which one could get quickly ordained, for the express purpose of being able to perform this ceremony. This was the opposite of the Vegas wedding in that it was planned and involved many family and friends who came in for the celebration; the happy couple remains wedded to this day. It was the celebrant, who achieved ordination via an outfit that ran ads in the back of magazines and comic books (this was 1992, the Internet wasn’t a thing yet), and was legally empowered by the state of Arizona to join them or any other couple together as husband and wife as a result. The wedding was beautiful and solemn and if you didn’t know any better you’d have had no idea that the celebrant was performing her first (and as far as I know, only) marriage. It’s just that this was not exactly what one would call traditional.

All of this is my typically long-winded way of saying that I support the Center for Inquiry in their quest, and I agree that this ruling was ridiculous and built on an extremely shaky foundation. I wish them well in their appeal and in their other lawsuits on this topic around the country. See here and here for more.

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3 Comments

  1. ANON says:

    “who achieved ordination via an outfit that ran ads in the back of magazines and comic books (this was 1992,)” … was it the Mother Earth Church?

  2. Doesn’t ring a bell, but I couldn’t say for sure. I’d have to ask my friend and ask her what church it was.

  3. mollusk says:

    I agree that it’s a ridiculous law (after all, I’m duly ordained by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster after having been touched by his noodly appendage), but it’s going to be a tough road to get the 5th Circuit to reverse a W appointee.

    The really crazy thing is that Texas recognizes non ceremonial marriages (they’d be common law except that they’re enshrined in the statutes). One can make a good argument that a couple can have pretty much anyone preside over whatever festivity they want to have; they don’t even have to bother with getting a license from the county clerk.

  4. mollusk says:

    I agree that it’s a ridiculous law (after all, I’m duly ordained by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster after having been touched by his noodly appendage), but it’s going to be a tough road to get the 5th Circuit to reverse a W appointee.

    The really crazy thing is that Texas recognizes non ceremonial marriages (they’d be common law except that they’re enshrined in the statutes). One can make a good argument that a couple can have pretty much anyone preside over whatever festivity they want to have; they don’t even have to bother with getting a license from the county clerk.