Minnesota law, like most states’ laws, restrict who can “solemnize” a marriage–certify to the state that a legal marriage has occurred after whatever type of formalities are deemed appropriate. Here is Minnesota’s current list of people who can be authorized to solemnize marriages (section 517.04 of Minnesota law):
Civil marriages may be solemnized throughout the state by an individual who has attained the age of 21 years and is a judge of a court of record, a retired judge of a court of record, a court administrator, a retired court administrator with the approval of the chief judge of the judicial district, a former court commissioner who is employed by the court system or is acting pursuant to an order of the chief judge of the commissioner’s judicial district, the residential school administrators of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination, or by any mode recognized in section 517.18. For purposes of this section, a court of record includes the Office of Administrative Hearings under section 14.48.
Section 517.18 is a list of special provisions for groups that don’t recognize their traditions (or may be at risk of the state not recognizing their traditions) under the description “a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination”:
Subdivision 1. Friends or Quakers. All civil marriages solemnized among the people called Friends or Quakers, in the form heretofore practiced and in use in their meetings, shall be valid and not affected by any of the foregoing provisions. The clerk of the meeting in which such civil marriage is solemnized, within one month after any such civil marriage, shall deliver a certificate of the same to the local registrar of the county where the civil marriage took place, under penalty of not more than $100. Such certificate shall be filed and recorded by the court administrator under a like penalty. If such civil marriage does not take place in such meeting, such certificate shall be signed by the parties and at least six witnesses present, and shall be filed and recorded as above provided under a like penalty.
Subd. 2. Baha’i. Civil marriages may be solemnized among members of the Baha’i faith by the chair of an incorporated local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, according to the form and usage of such society.
Subd. 3. Hindus; Muslims. Civil marriages may be solemnized among Hindus or Muslims by the person chosen by a local Hindu or Muslim association, according to the form and usage of their respective religions.
Subd. 4. American Indians. Civil marriages may be solemnized among American Indians according to the form and usage of their religion by an Indian Mide’ or holy person chosen by the parties to the civil marriage.
Based on this law and on discussions with lawmakers, we note that there is no way for a non-religious community to be treated equally on this matter. An atheist or secular humanist could become a celebrant by working with a branch of their community identified as religious. For example, humanists have been allowed to perform marriages working through the religious branch of humanism. Ethical Societies identify as religious groups. An atheist group could potentially choose to do the same if its membership were in favor. However, an atheist group that is clear that it is not a “religious denomination” with “licensed or ordained minister[s]” is excluded under the law as it now stands.
Some members of the Minnesota Atheists board (including me) have also talked to lawmakers about options for changing this. And we heard from members and others with very strong opinions about what should be done about the situation, including doing nothing at all.
In response, we’ve put together a very short survey to find out from nonbelievers in Minnesota where they stand on the question. If that description fits you, please, take a few minutes and let us know where you stand. We have an opportunity to represent you on this issue, and we want to know what that means.