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Jan 06 2014

Minnesota Nonbelievers, Your Opinions Please

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.

Subd. 5. Construction of section. Nothing in subdivisions 2 to 4 shall be construed to alter the requirements of section 517.01, 517.09 or 517.10.

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.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Crimson Clupeidae

    The only good news is that one can get ‘ordained’ online for a nominal fee through the UU. It’s recognized as religious in the sense that one can then sign a wedding certificate (in any state, as far as I know). We had our friend do that so that he could perform our wedding ceremony, and we wouldn’t have to have a second one in front of a judge or something.

    You’re right though, it’s one of the many perks built in to the system that favors religion over non-religion.

  2. 2
    rnilsson

    Weird. In the town where I do most of my work, I have come across a few politicos who I know are ordained to perform non-confessional weddings, and do so, and that seems to be Not A Big Deal. At least a couple of them are probably not religious, and I much doubt that would matter anyhow.

    That’s secularism for ya.

  3. 3
    Rieux

    The only good news is that one can get ‘ordained’ online for a nominal fee through the UU.

    I think you mean the Universal Life Church (“ULC”). Unitarian Universalist (“UU”) ordination is a much lengthier process; it generally requires years of seminary education, among other things.

    As it happens, the relationship between UUism and atheism is much more problematic than many, many people (including a large number of atheists) realize—but presuming you simply meant to type “ULC,” that matter isn’t actually relevant to your comment. (It is, er, a particular hobbyhorse of mine.)

  4. 4
    freemage

    A friend actually did the ULC thing. But yes, the law should be altered in some fashion.

  5. 5
    jesse

    I read this (what you have there) and I don’t understand what the problem is. The list of court officers could include atheists, no?

    Maybe it is different here (I live in NY) but in this state you go to the courthouse, sign the form, pay the fee (I think it’s like $35) and as long as a judge or some court officer is there (a JP) and a couple of witnesses, congrats, you’re married.

    (We have a “mass wedding” room in the local borough hall and people from at least a dozen religions and non-religions are in there every day, and the person who yells out the litany doesn’t have a particular affiliation — he just says “you all getting married” and people say “yeah” and he says, “by the power vested in me by the state of New YorkI now pronounce you men and wives. Next group.”).

    You could do it a home too as long as the guy who signs the license is accredited by the state. Usually it’s religious figures, but that isn’t strictly necessary. Your person could be an atheist or whatever, doesn’t matter, as long as s/he fills out the paperwork beforehand. I know of attorneys who are judges in taxi court (it’s a part-time gig), for instance, and they could do it, as far as I know.

    Back when I lived in Massachusetts it was even simpler, sometimes town clerks could do it or the local selectman/woman.

    It looks like an attempt to make sure that everyone who has outlying religious traditions is included, which to me is not necessarily bad, since the non-believers would be covered by the first paragraph quoted, no? Am I missing something? What’s up in Minnesota? Is there no procedure for getting someone certified as a court officer who isn’t a pastor or rabbi or something like?

  6. 6
    dickspringer

    My wife and I were married in New York State. We wanted to marry each other without being joined in matrimony by anyone else, as Quakers do. We were not allowed to do so because we were not Quakers. New York State has a provision for contract marriage in which no one other that the spouses performs the marriage, by the red tape involved was absolutely prohibitive.

    We ended up going to a Justice of the Peace.

    I think this was a clear case of religious discrimination.

  7. 7
    jesse

    @dickspringer — we were married in NY Sate too, and it just meant going to the judge’s office. (She was someone we knew through a friend of the family, no religious affiliation I am aware of, the whole thing took about an hour). That’s why I am curious about the religious discrimination issue you bring up. I get the case you’re making about Quakers, but generally it seems that one way or the other you go to a court officer, and in NY in particular the list is pretty long, so finding someone to sign off seems simple enough.

    And honestly, I have little problem with that because you don’t get cases of people doing things like pulling a Warren Jeffs I-want-to-marry-a-young-teen as often; the court officer’s job (in part) is to make sure marriages conform with local laws, you know? Make sure everything is kosher (no pun intended). It’s just a way of getting a third witness in and having good records as much as anything else. There is a whole other debate about whether the state should contract marriages at all, but that gets into issues of contract law and all that and given the system we have, seems a bit of a different issue. (in a perfect world it wouldn’t be necessary, but that’s not where we live).

  8. 8
    Adamo

    My first marriage was in South Dakota, performed by a JP. Witnesses were two strangers kept on hand for such purpose for those of us who hadn’t brought our own. (There was a line-up of couples, guess you could call it a marriage mill.) I actually have no recollection of the ceremony text, and can’t comment on religiosity or not inherent in the vows. I have more of an issue with promising to “obey” a male, or being pronounced “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife”, as a heterosexual couple.

    Jesse, in addition to bringing ID to prove we were of age, we had to get blood tests done to prove neither of us had VD!

    I got my ULC minister’s card, but never bothered to register it to perform any weddings. Or try for tax benefits. As far as being religious, we were told as members to believe in “what was right.” That was our theology. Period. As an agnostic, that suited me. Don’t know why any atheist couldn’t sign up, except for the words “minister” and “church”. Am I the only one who could wrap their mind around those words referring to something without the concept of a God?

  9. 9
    Socio-gen, something something...

    Pennsylvania, where I’m originally from, has a “self-uniting license” which allows anyone to marry without an officiant of any kind; you just need two witnesses. It was just for Quakers, Amish, and other denominations, but since 2007 has been available to non-religious (heterosexual) couples.

  10. 10
    celticwulf

    Filled out, and hope it helps since I’m from MN. The only question to cause me issues was the “do you anticipate the services of one”. I answered no, but there really should be an option for “already happily married but would have liked the option in the past” or something to that effect.

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    jesse, I’m not really sure what your objection is. No one is saying nonbelievers can’t get married. No one is saying nonbelievers who are agents of the court are barred from performing ceremonies. However, as the law stands, nonbelievers in Minnesota can’t have a marriage ceremony conducted by someone from their community and have that ceremony hold legal weight (unless they just happen to have a judge or court administrator in their community, which I don’t think anyone wants to count on). They can either skip the ceremony and get married by a judge or court administrator they don’t know, or they can have two ceremonies. They face restrictions on their choices religious people do not.

    Adamo, as I mentioned in the post, there are nonbeliever groups who do identify as religions. However, Quakers and other groups get mentioned separately under our law because no one thinks they should be forced (or try to convince a county clerk to) shoehorn their beliefs into that wording. Should nonbelievers who have experienced religious abuse or who cannot in good conscience refer to their community as a religion be more restricted than Quakers?

  12. 12
    jesse

    It’s not an objection, I was just confused about what the problem was, since I was under the impression that you needed an officer of the court of some sort from the get-go, and that was by definition secular (unless the Establishment clause got repealed? :-) ) and whatever the beliefs of the court officer were didn’t matter. (All this is assuming you don’t want to contract the marriage via a church or whatever).

    When I read the law as you have it up there it seemed like an effort to be inclusive.

    It seems to me a simpler solution is to just expand the definition of court officer to include town clerks and some attorneys and such, (i don’t know who counts in MN, in NY State the definition is pretty broad).

    Again, in a perfect world, I’d feel differently, but there has to be someone around I think to make sure everything is kosher. I mean, is there anything that prevents a MN resident from being an officer of the court if they are atheist? Again, I note that in many states it seems pretty easy to get certified to officiate civil, non-religious/ church marriages, but I havent tried it so I don’t know what it means in practical terms. Is i especially difficult in MN? (Like i said, in NY even the taxi court judge* can do it, but it may be that NY makes it particularly easy compared to most places).

    *TLC court is a part-time gig, mostly retired attorneys, but you are a judge so you can officiate as far as I know- i don’t see any rules against it in my skim of the law here

  13. 13
    Stephanie Zvan

    You’re suggesting that going to law school and putting in the time and work to become a judge is what an atheist should have to go through to have the same privileges as clergy?

  14. 14
    jesse

    No, I am saying that “officer of the court” is a broad enough term that it seems to cover a lot of people and becoming a Justice of the Peace doesn’t require that at all, at least not in many states.

    For example, in CT it’s essentially politically appointed (the link is here: http://www.jpus.org/becomeajpct.htm#unaffiliated) but it doesn’t require the investment you describe. (Having worked in CT for a bit, I can tell you it just means schmoozing with the Town Clerk a bit and being sort of nice to him/ her — it’s a little more involved in Hartford or New Haven, but those are bigger cities. Supposedly the number of JPs is fixed but in many areas there was a shortage at one point). In Massachusetts you just fill out a form you send to the governor and get it approved on a case-by-case basis (i.e. you want to solemnize a marriage for a friend as long a you aren’t a convicted serial killer — heck, even if you are and can get someone to write a nice letter about you –you just pay the $25 and make sure you file on time).

    I don’t know if there’s any procedure like that ‘in MN, but if there isn’t the method in Mass. might be one way to fix the problem you describe. Can JP’s marry people in MN? Do you have them? If not then yes, I can certainly see how you’d want to change that and should.

    New York (City) is a bit more complicated as you say; you have to be a lawyer, essentially, to be a JP-equivalent, or a city official (the mayor or certain parts of the police department). But outside of that you could also be a court clerk or city / town/ county clerk, or the local elected justice, so that being a lawyer isn’t strictly necessary for officiating weddings.

    I’ll admit I was biased by getting married in a large city where having someone we knew well officiate wasn’t as big a deal and our goal was to get the legal marriage stuff done before we planned anything else. The actual marriage was done eight months earlier than the ceremony. A lot of people I know did that, just because paperwork takes a while to work its way through the system and a number of people I know (my spouse and I included) had to deal with immigration as well, so two ceremonies (or rather, one visit to a court office and a ceremony) seemed like small potatoes, you know? (I would not wish immigration paperwork on my worst enemy, especially when getting married — we were out thousands once lawyer plus filing fees were tallied up, so initially I was like, “You’re complaining about having to find a court officer? That’s the *easy* part.”)

    But to be clear, I do get what you are talking about as a matter of principle, and will say that yes, the law should be tweaked to include atheists, perhaps on the Massachusetts model if you have JPs in MN.

  15. 15
    Marcus Ranum

    I’d say an atheist wedding is a witnessing of a commitment between whoever is getting married. There ought to be multiple lines on the form for witnesses and what “solemnizes” the wedding is those witnesses. Plenty of room for ritual, jockeying for position, and family hatred in that formula.

    At my second wedding my wife and I married ourselves. We said the vows to eachother and “I take thee” and that was that. The certificate was counter-signed by an illegible scrawl.

    “Solemnize” is such a funny word for it; does a divorce have a counter-ceremony in which the original marriage is “ridiculed”?? It should.

  16. 16
    sisu

    Minnesota does not have JPs, Jesse. We have judges; that’s it. The objection (which I think you might be missing) is that in MN, we originally had two options: 1) judge (or retired judge, or other court official – these are all actual posts, not just paper appointments); or 2) licensed or ordained clergy. Then a number of exceptions were written to accomodate religions that don’t have a clergy member (Friends, Baha’i, I thought Hmong traditional marriages were in there too, but I guess not), but there’s still no exception for an atheist group leader.

    I wonder if the popularity of the Sunday Assembly will help boost the cause, now that there’s an “atheist church” that’s in the news? Legislators might be able to grasp the concept a little better.

  17. 17
    jesse

    @sisu — yes, I figured that out eventually — if you dont have a JP system then the whole thing is harder to do, and lacking a Massachusetts-type system of temporary appointments limits what you can do.

    As to selling i to legislators, that might be the simplest thing to do — or just have *everyone* be required to make the trip to the courthouse/ town hall, as in NY, and have the “sign off” be there. Then whatever happens at the marriage ceremony doesn’t matter. Everyone has to make the extra trip, the “solemnization” or whatever you want to call it is all done in a secular setting, so there’s no differential privilege for religious people.

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