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7th Circuit: Indiana's marriage solemnization statute violates Constitution

July 14, 2014

Finding that Indiana’s statute specifying who many solemnize marriage “discriminates arbitrarily among religious and ethical beliefs,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state must allow certified secular humanist celebrants to perform wedding ceremonies.

The 7th Circuit reversed a judgment from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Center for Inquiry, Inc., and Reba Boyd Wooden v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk and Marion County Prosecutor, 12-3751. The unanimous 7th Circuit panel ordered the lower court to issue an injunction enabling certified secular humanist celebrants to legally solemnize marriage in Indiana.

Indiana Code 31-11-6-1 which allows religious clergy and state officials, such as judges, mayors and county clerks, to perform marriage ceremonies was challenged by the Center for Inquiry on the grounds that the statute omits the equivalent officials from secular groups, such as humanists societies. The center argued the state’s marriage solemnization statute violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by giving some religions a privileged role.

The state countered that humanists are not excluded under the statute. It contended a humanist group could meet the statute’s requirements for solemnizing marriages simply by calling itself a religion; or, the humanist celebrant could conduct an “extra-legal ceremony” which would be followed by the couple making a trip to the local court to have the clerk perform a legal solemnization.

The 7th Circuit rejected that argument, saying the “ability to carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in the back office,” does not address the injury of which the humanists complain.  

Taking a closer examination of Indiana’s statute, the 7th Circuit concluded that the state not only discriminates against non-religious ethical groups but also discriminates among religions by preferring those that have clergy and consider marriage to be sacred.

Consequently, the 7th Circuit ruled the Indiana marriage solemnization statute violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriage if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion,’” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the court. “It is absurd to give the Church of Satan, whose high priestess avows that her powers derive from having sex with Satan, and the Universal Life Church, which sells credentials to anyone with a credit card, a preferred position over Buddhists, who emphasize love and peace. A marriage solemnized by a self-declared hypocrite would leave a sour taste in the couple’s mouths; like many others, humanists want a ceremony that celebrates their values, not the ‘values’ of people who will say or do whatever it takes to jump through some statutory hoop.”

The 7th Circuit also noted if Indiana amends its statute to allow notaries to solemnize marriages, then the District Court should be receptive to a motion to modify the injunction.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he is evaluating options to appeal the 7th Circuit’s ruling.

Reiterating his office has a duty to defend state laws, Zoeller said “we contend the Legislature’s requirements for determining who can solemnize a marriage for the purpose of filing a marriage license at the county clerk’s office were reasonable and included alternatives for couples without involving clergy.”

The Attorney General characterized the ruling as narrow but raising an important question of state legislative authority.


 

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