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May 22 2013

Edwords Urges DC Council to Allow Secular Wedding Officiants

Fred Edwords, the former executive director of the American Humanist Association, testified in front of the Washington, DC City Council last week to urge them to pass the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013, which would allow couples to choose anyone to officiate at their wedding by letting them get a one-time use license to do so. Here is his testimony:

On behalf of the Humanist Society, I’m addressing you today for two reasons: first, to express support for the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013 but, second, to urge you to consider taking the spirit behind that Act even further. Let me begin by drawing attention to some important characteristics of Humanism. Like Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, Humanism is without any theology or concept of a supreme being. Put simply, there is no god in the Humanist outlook. But unlike all world religions, Humanism is also without any notion of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some higher source of spiritual knowledge or some cosmic foundation for morality. Rather, Humanism is about human means for understanding the world and human motives for acting in it.

This means that Humanists are atheists, agnostics, or skeptics who see the universe as natural. As such, the majority of Humanists in the organized Humanist movement prefer to not regard themselves as religious at all. And when it comes to their weddings, they often specifically ask for non-religious ceremonies. Indeed, of all the Humanist weddings I’ve personally conducted over the years, only one was held in an identifiably religious building and none were characterized as religious by the wedding couple.

However, for the purposes of D.C. Code § 46-406, the word “religious” is broadly defined to include not only the common theological meanings of that term but, as an alternative, “a devotion to some principle, strict fidelity or faithfulness, conscientiousness, pious affection, or attachment.” And that’s where Humanists fit in. But, of course, this language excludes those Humanists who prefer to distance themselves from the term “religious” altogether.

Therefore, thanks to the new opportunity offered by the proposed Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013, those preferring to identify themselves as nonreligious will become empowered, on a case-by-case basis, to officiate at secular wedding ceremonies. Likewise, the wedding couples will not have to have their ceremonies characterized as religious. This will be recognized as a boon by this non-theistic constituency as well as an important step in the direction of broader inclusiveness and greater social pluralism.

The Humanist Society is an organization that has long conducted ceremonies that are non-religious in philosophy or style, even though characterized as religious by the law. And it has certified celebrants who are atheists, agnostics, or skeptics. As such, it fully supports legislation that allows for improved government recognition of non-religious people. Hence it’s support for the Act.

But it is hoped that the Council will—now or in the future—see its way clear to also recognize the existence of non-religious, secular philosophies as having the same power in the lives of some individuals as religious beliefs have in the lives of others. And in so recognizing, it is hoped the Council will consider broadening the language of the law so that secular philosophies, and the societies and other institutions that promote them, won’t have to be included under a broadened meaning of the term “religious.” Likewise, it is hoped that nonreligious celebrants wishing to solemnize secular weddings won’t have to secure separate authorization for each individual occasion.

Thank you for allowing me this time to address you on an issue of importance to Humanists and others residing in or wishing to be married in the District of Columbia.

I say this doesn’t go far enough. Here’s how it should work: Anyone who wants to get married goes down to their local city hall, courthouse, etc, and makes a pledge, signs some papers and they’re married. Anyone who wants to then hold a ceremony can do so in any legal manner they wish, with anyone they want overseeing. If they want to do it in a church with a minister, fine. If they want to be married by a naked Elvis impersonator, why the hell should anyone who isn’t invited to the wedding give a damn? And why is it anyone else’s business? I am for the complete separation of religion and marriage.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Mr Ed

    Young Elvis or Old Elvis? I think that makes a difference if he is naked.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    I think there is an easier solution. In Maine, North Carolina and Florida, signing the civil marriage documents is classified as a special-case jurat. No need for clergy, no need for judges, no need for clerks: all you need to get married is a willing couple, two witnesses, and a notary public to take the oaths and countersign the signatures.

    Personally, I would love to see the end of clerical permission to officiate at legal weddings: clergy should NOT be given any privileges as ministers of the law. Give this authority to notaries, and if clergy wish to remain a one-stop shop, they can be licensed as a notary, too.

  3. 3
    richardelguru

    Ed and Mr Ed
    also how would you know that they were an Elvis impersonator without Elvish clothes? Hairstyle is surely hardly enough.

  4. 4
    Alverant

    Agreed.

    I would add that with the economy being what it is and people wishing to save money, traditional marriages aren’t as common. It’s cheaper to rent a public park or a campsite at a state/national park than a church. People should have options about where they get married and who runs the ceremony. Not just for religious reasons, but economic as well. I have the sneaky suspicion the real reason behind any clerical resistance to the proposal would be to prevent a loss of income to the church than any “legit” spiritual concern.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Alverant #4 – I dare say that clerical opposition is a power thing. In the fight for same-sex marriage equality, I have been faced time and again with the public presumption that all marriage, everywhere, is a religious institution. I have seen a great many otherwise educated people who say that civil law has no business regulating who can and cannot get married; after all, the law does not regulate who can be baptized or bar mitzvah-ed or ordained, right?

    If we allow secular marriage ceremonies, then the religious chokehold on American culture is weakened. That terrifies an awful lot of people.

  6. 6
    doublereed

    I don’t understand. What does this law actually do?

    Aren’t secular marriages and officiants required to be recognized by the First Amendment already?

  7. 7
    Abby Normal

    I don’t see how Article VI, the no religious test clause, would allow for anything less than what Mr. Edwords is requesting. The authority to perform marriages is a matter of public trust. Requiring people to profess belief in the supernatural is a religious test. I’m not seeing much wiggle room here.

  8. 8
    TGAP Dad

    My wife and I were married in Maumee, OH, by the mayor. When we first met him to get on his schedule, he had just come from a softball game, and still wore his uniform – grass stains, dirt and all. He did in fact don a nice suit for the ceremony itself.

  9. 9
    d.c.wilson

    how would you know that they were an Elvis impersonator without Elvish clothes? Hairstyle is surely hardly enough.

    It’s all in how he swivels his hips.

  10. 10
    abb3w

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    If they want to be married by a naked Elvis impersonator, why the hell should anyone who isn’t invited to the wedding give a damn?

    …because they weren’t invited to that wedding? Though the degree of upset would seem likely to depend whether it’s young Elvis or old Elvis.

    @2, Gregory in Seattle:

    Personally, I would love to see the end of clerical permission to officiate at legal weddings: clergy should NOT be given any privileges as ministers of the law. Give this authority to notaries, and if clergy wish to remain a one-stop shop, they can be licensed as a notary, too.

    That seems a sensible idea, generally; but there might be some complications. Virginia’s requirements from a notary include being “(1) at least eighteen years old, (2) able to read and write the English language, (3) be a legal resident of the United States, (4) live or work in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and (5) have not been convicted of a felony.” I’d bet dollars to donuts numbers 1, 2, and 5 might become grounds for a (not necessarily losing) Federal Civil Rights lawsuit.

  11. 11
    otrame

    Most members of my family have managed to avoid churches for a couple of generations. My brother got an el cheapo email “ordination” so he could officiate at his son’s wedding. My son opted for five minutes in front of a JP with no one there but me and his aunt. He’s still pretty married.

    I agree that since the actual marriage (as far as the government is concerned) happens when you sign papers, then it should not matter who “officiates” the more public part.

    Would have saved my brother a couple of hundred bucks.

  12. 12
    jnorris

    I agree with Gregory in Seattle @ #2. Seeing the judge is all the state needs. the couple can visit a minister afterwards.

  13. 13
    Mayonnaise Jane

    I do believe there are places in Las Vegas where you can be married by an ordained minster Elvis impersonator… I’m sure I read that someplace.

    8^P

  14. 14
    steve84

    People should be legally married when they sign the papers at city hall. The whole marriage license thing can be abolished altogether.

  15. 15
    steve84

    @doublereed
    As typical in the fucked up American legal system, there are 50 different rules about this. In some states only clergy or justices of the peace can perform weddings. In Indiana humanists just lost a case about this. There you can’t just get a license to perform a wedding.

  16. 16
    dingojack

    How weird America is!
    Here you can hire a wedding celebrant, hire a nice park down near the shore, say you’re own vows, even have the bride’s mum give a speech via Skype. The only legal bit of the marriage is signing the paper in front of the celebrant (who acts as notary). and that’s it.
    Simple (or as complicated) as you like.
    Dingo

  17. 17
    Bronze Dog

    When I was younger, I had a conversation with my dad about marriage equality (we’re both in favor) and we got on the same point:

    Either
    A) marriage is a religious institution, in which case, the government shouldn’t be involved, and there shouldn’t be any legal benefits or even recognition. Freedom of religion means that each church can decide for itself and people can schism a new religion/denomination if they disagree.

    Or B) marriage is a secular institution, in which case, the churches are irrelevant and the popularity of homophobia in the churches should be ignored in favor of equal rights.

    We favor B, of course.

  18. 18
    Gregory in Seattle

    @abb3w #10 – Speaking as a Washington notary public: most states have similar requirements, and all have long stood under court scrutiny.

    Notaries in the US are ministers of the law (meaning we help to administer the law.) We have two main duties: to verify the identity of a signature, and to take oaths. To perform these jobs, we must be able to read and understand the language that documents are in. Because I speak English quite well, I can verify identity cards with English on them, verify that documents written in English are filled out properly, and take oaths given in English. Someone who did not speak and understand English reasonably well would be pretty much unable to function as a notary in the US.

    A notary must be able to testify on his or her own behalf in the event a notarial act is brought to court. There is also a quirk in common law that a person unable to make a sworn oath is not allowed to take a sworn oath. A minor would be unable to fulfill either duty, thus the minimum age restriction.

    Being ministers of the law mean that notaries are in a position of high trust. Different states have different methods for insuring that trust. In Washington, having a felony conviction is not an impediment, but notaries must carry a $10,000 surety bond. When I was a notary in Arizona, I had to find three people willing to swear under oath that I was “of good character.” On the upside, though, states can no longer require religious oaths as a demonstration of being worthy of public trust (look up Torcaso v. Watkins from 1961.) Most state restrictions on who can and cannot be a notary have been tested in various courts and upheld as reasonable requirements.

  19. 19
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Bronze Dog #17 – As a matter of law, marriage has always been a civil institution in the US. It is basically a boilerplate contract that conveys a very large number of rights and mutual obligations, starting with inheritance, common property and power of attorney. As matters of property, these are areas that the law has a vested interest in regulating. Untangling marriage from statutory and common law would take decades, at least, even if you could get Congress and every state, possession, territory, commonwealth, district, county and municipality to begin the work at once, not to mention the quagmire in the mean time, not to mention having to reestablish centuries of judicial precedent.

    So yeah, it would be much, MUCH easier to reaffirm that marriage is a civil, not religious, institution :)

  20. 20
    Sastra

    Gregory in Seattle #5 wrote:

    In the fight for same-sex marriage equality, I have been faced time and again with the public presumption that all marriage, everywhere, is a religious institution. I have seen a great many otherwise educated people who say that civil law has no business regulating who can and cannot get married; after all, the law does not regulate who can be baptized or bar mitzvah-ed or ordained, right? If we allow secular marriage ceremonies, then the religious chokehold on American culture is weakened. That terrifies an awful lot of people.

    QFT. When I have asked whether atheists should be “allowed” to marry given that all marriage, everywhere, is a religious institution I usually get some variation of “yes, because atheists might some day convert” or “yes, because GOD is there even if the atheists don’t see him” (I’ve yet to get a ‘no.’) Of course, the analogy to baptism and bar mitzvah doesn’t hold for either response.

    I’m possibly most discouraged though by those few fellow atheists who argue for the complete integration of religion and marriages — as if 1.) the religious are correct and marriage is inherently a covenant with God which atheists should have nothing to do with and 2.) this will weaken the religious chokehold on American culture. No; I think you have it right.

  21. 21
    Karen Locke

    You have my kudos. Husband would go further, and declare all marital unions in the U.S. to be, as far as government is concerned, civil unions. He sees marriages as religious drivel. Great if you want it, but doesn’t affect your tax returns, or your hospital rights for you and your spouse. I tend to agree with him.

  22. 22
    abb3w

    @18, Gregory in Seattle:

    Speaking as a Washington notary public: most states have similar requirements, and all have long stood under court scrutiny.

    Which isn’t a problem at present. However, once the requirement is made for officiating a religious ceremony… it gets tricky. The state might defend it successfully, by indicating that it’s only the secular element of the marriage that requires it; but a lawsuit (and cries of “Religious persecution!”) still seems likely.

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