Yesterday, the Seventh Circuit ruled that Indiana’s statute regarding who may solemnize a marriage violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment, reversing the lower court’s decision. In Center for Inquiry, Inc. v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, No. 12-3751, 2014 WL 3397217 (7th Cir. July 14, 2014), the Center for Inquiry filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that Indiana’s marriage-solemnization statute violates the Constitution’s First Amendment, applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, by giving some religions a privileged role. The statute specifies who may perform the final steps that unite persons who hold marriage licenses. The list includes religious officials designated by religious groups, but it omits equivalent officials of secular groups such as humanist societies. 


The Seventh Circuit wrote that three states (Florida, Maine, and South Carolina) authorize humanists to solemnize marriages by becoming notaries public, but Indiana does not (notaries cannot perform marriages in Indiana)—nor does it provide any other way for private secular groups to exercise this authority. Four states (Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia) allow anyone to solemnize a marriage, and another six (Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Pennsylvania, New York, and Wisconsin) allow the couple to solemnize their own marriage, but neither option is available in Indiana. For hundreds of years, in the legal tradition that we inherited from England, the persons who could solemnize marriages included clergy, public officials, sea captains, notaries public, and the celebrants themselves. When Indiana codified the list in 1857 it left off captains, notaries, and the marrying couple, though it included some religious groups (and added some other religious groups later). 

The Center for Inquiry is a nonprofit corporation that describes itself as a humanist group that promotes ethical living without belief in a deity. The Center seeks to show, among other things, that it is possible to have strong ethical values based on critical reason and scientific inquiry rather than theism and faith. The Center maintains that its methods and values play the same role in its members’ lives as religious methods and values play in the lives of adherents. The Center would be satisfied if notaries were added to the list; nothing in humanism makes it inappropriate for a leader (or any other member) to be a notary public.

In the lawsuit, Indiana stated that a humanist group could call itself a religion, which would be good enough for the state. It also noted that a humanist celebrant could conduct an extra-legal ceremony, which the not-yet-married couple could follow up with a trip to the local court to have the clerk perform a legally effective solemnization. The Center and its Indiana leader, who is also a plaintiff, find these options unacceptable; they are unwilling to pretend to be something they are not or pretend to believe something they do not; they are shut out as long as they are sincere in following an ethical system that does not worship any god, adopt any theology, or accept a religious label.

The Seventh Circuit observed that the Supreme Court has forbidden distinctions between religious and secular beliefs that hold the same place in adherents’ lives. It also observed its own past holding that when making accommodations in prisons, states must treat atheism as favorably as theistic religion. What is true of atheism is equally true of humanism, it wrote, and as true in daily life as in prison.

The Seventh Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has addressed the long-established practice of opening legislative meetings with prayer, most recently in this year’s Greece v. Galloway, 134 S.Ct. 1811 (2014). But while these cases concern what a chosen agent of the government says as part of the government’s own operation, they do not concern how a state regulates private conduct. The Indiana marriage statute, by contrast, is regulatory. So although a government may, consistent with the First Amendment, open legislative sessions with Christian prayers while not inviting leaders of other religions, a state cannot limit the solemnization of weddings to Christians, while excluding Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and—humanism.

Reversing the lower court decision, the Seventh Circuit remanded with instructions to issue an injunction allowing certified secular humanist celebrants to solemnize marriages in Indiana—to do this with legal effect, and without risk of criminal penalties. It wrote, however, that if Indiana amends its statute to allow notaries to solemnize marriages, the district court should be receptive to a motion to modify the injunction to minimize the extent to which a federal decree supersedes the state’s own solution to the problems the Seventh Circuit has identified.

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