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Atheist Group Sues Indiana, Demanding Right to Have 'Secular Celebrants' Legally Marry Non-Believers


"come to Jesus"

A figurine of a bride and a groom sits atop a wedding cake during an election watch party at the N. Raleigh Hilton in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday May 8, 2012. The national debate over gay marriage focused on North Carolina, as voters made it the 29th state to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Credit: AP

Atheists are suing the state of Indiana, claiming that the state's current regulations governing nuptials are discriminatory. The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a New York-based secular group, claims that the state's marriage statute is unconstitutional, as it forbids atheists and non-believers from being married by their own, chosen leaders.

CFI has filed a lawsuit, through the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claiming that Indiana's marriage law (Indiana Code 31-11-6-1) violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FOX News reports. At the center of the debate are John Kiel and Michelle Landrum, a non-believing couple hoping to marry in the next six months.

Photo Credit: AP

The organization is known for training individuals in how to be "secular celebrants" (individuals who are atheists, but who wish to perform weddings for non-believers). A description of the program on the CFI web site reads, "The Center for Inquiry has created a Secular Celebrant Program to train and certify secular celebrants to perform weddings, memorials, and other 'milestones of life' ceremonies."

Here's more from the organization's web site (the group admits the program is a chance to sue communities that restrict its right to marry non-believers):

Persons who are not affiliated with any religion constitute 16% of the US population.  Unfortunately, the choice of persons to conduct ceremonies for marriages, same sex commitments, memorials, and other rites of passage is usually between religious clergy and civil officials.

For a nonreligious person this can be a traumatic experience.  They may be required to go through religious counseling and/or have religious references in their ceremony.  They may be prevented from having their choice of music or readings as part of the ceremony.  The local minister called on to conduct a funeral/memorial may preach a “come to Jesus” sermon or otherwise use religious references that are not in keeping with the worldview of the person being memorialized.  Many of us have seen this done.

Additionally, 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.  Furthermore, these officials are typically personally unknown to the couple.  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 lawsuit that was filed explains the group's goals in detail.

"The Center for Inquiry-Indiana has members in Indiana who would like to be married by a person who has completed the secular celebrant program and is therefore authorized by the Center for Inquiry-Indiana to solemnize marriages," the complaint reads. "Additionally, non-members have requested that secular celebrants perform their weddings because the non-members do not desire to have religious weddings, but wish to have meaningful secular ceremonies."

Here's a copy of the Indiana statute (see a larger version here):

Photo Credit: Indiana State Government

According to Indiana state law, marriages must be conducted by clergy or government officials. This, of course, is commonplace, as secular people may choose to have a mayor, judge or other registered professional marry them. Just the same, religious individuals typically select their local faith leaders to do the same.

But because the law doesn't provide a distinction (it names specific faiths) for atheists and secularists (i.e. "secular celebrants") or any individual, for that matter, who's ability to marry is based upon non-belief, CFI is suing. It should be noted, though, that if CFI is considered a "religious" group, then it would surely be permitted to marry. Indiana Public Media further explains the way the state's marriage law works:

Under Indiana statute, marriage is essentially a two-step process. The state issues a marriage license and then it is solemnized. The state’s marriage statute spells out who can solemnize, including religious organizations and some elected officials.

Solicitor General Thomas Fisher says the purpose of the statute is for the state to regulate marriage while accommodating religious groups and providing alternatives for non-religious organizations.

Photo Credit: FILE

Apparently, non-believers aren't happy with the options they have for officiants -- even if the individuals who fit into the current law are, themselves, atheists. Plus, they believe the government is favoring religious people over those who lack belief in a higher power.

Other issues include limitations on the places where marriages may happen and "unwanted governmental overtone," FOX also reports. However, atheists are also frustrated over a lack of personal connection that they would have to those secular individuals currently available to marry them (this is clearly something that motivates religious' peoples choice to select faith leaders they know and adore).

Officials are worried that a CFI win would mean that any and all organizations have the right to solemnize weddings -- something that is apparently unpalatable. Indiana's Attorney General's Office issues a statement on October 9 and shared the document with The Christian Post. In it, the government said that "there is no constitutional right to solemnize marriages." Here's more from the document:

"CFI's relatively short history and organizational indifference to marriage are instructive in this regard, as they demonstrate that CFI has no traditional association with marriage, and no philosophy that incorporates marriage in any significant way," reads the brief in part.

"With marriage solemnization, the State has chosen to remain sensitive to the traditional practices of groups for whom marriage is a special, indeed commanded, institution-a rationale that does not apply to CFI."

Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker heard arguments on Monday and proclaimed that she believes the statute is generic enough and, due to its broad religious definition, it would allow CFI to marry members. But the organization maintains that it is not a religious group and purportedly declined to be recognized as such.

The case is ongoing.

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