CFI Submits Testimony on DC Marriage Officiant Act

October 15, 2010


Yesterday, CFI-DC Executive Director Melody Hensley presented testimony on behalf of the Center for Inquiry in favor of the Marriage Officiant Act of 2010, a city council act that would allow secular wedding officiants to perform marriages in Washington, DC as public notaries.  Friend-of-the-Center and CFI-DC/Office of Public Policy volunteer Steve Lowe also presented testimony in his personal capacity as a resident of the District.

CFI has long supported providing secular marriage officiants to those who elect to use their services.  CFI’s Secular Celebrants program supplies nonreligious celebrants to conduct wedding ceremonies and other “life milestone” ceremonies.  Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions CFI’s secular celebrants are unfairly barred by law from officially performing marriages because they are not affiliated with a religious institution.  The Marriage Officiant Act of 2010 would change this state of affairs within Washington, DC by allowing secular celebrants to perform marriages as notaries.

A copy of Ms. Hensley’s testimony appears below.

The Center for Inquiry (“CFI”) respectfully offers this testimony in support of the Marriage Officiant Act of 2010, which would allow public notaries to perform marriages within the District of Columbia.

The Center for Inquiry is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom for inquiry, and humanist values. In striving to achieve this goal, CFI promotes and defends religious liberty by fighting to ensure that all individuals, both religious and secular, enjoy equal rights and privileges under the law.

CFI supports the Marriage Officiant Act because it would help erase a significant disparity between the rights and privileges of religious and non-religious residents of the District of Columbia. By allowing for marriage ceremonies to be performed by public notaries, the Marriage Officiant Act will provide secular couples with a significantly greater opportunity to be married by an officiant of their choosing.

According to polling data collected by Gallup, Inc. in May 2010, persons who are unaffiliated with any religion constitute 16% of the US population, or nearly one in six Americans. Unfortunately, the laws of many jurisdictions, including the current laws of the District of Columbia, limit the choice of persons to officiate at marriage ceremonies to religious clergy and civil officials, such as judges or court officials.

For nonreligious individuals this can be a traumatic experience. They may be required to go through religious counseling and/or have unwanted religious references inserted in their wedding ceremony. They may be prevented from having their choice of music or readings as part of the ceremony. The local minister called upon to conduct a wedding may use religious references that are not in keeping with the worldview of the couple being married. Unfortunately, many members of the secular community have witnessed such events.

Additionally, civil officials are often not available to perform marriage ceremonies at the place and time of the couple’s choosing, but only in an impersonal, government setting such as an office or the courthouse. Furthermore, these officials are typically personally unknown to the couple. A wedding ceremony is among the most important and meaningful of life’s milestones. People should be able to have these ceremonies conducted in a manner and by a person of their choosing.

While some nonreligious couples see no need for marriage ceremonies of any kind, many feel that having a way of marking this deeply meaningful life passage is important. CFI maintains that this is a personal choice and that secular wedding ceremonies-and persons to conduct these ceremonies-should be available to those who want them. For this reason, the Center for Inquiry has created a Secular Celebrant Program to train and certify secular celebrants to perform weddings and other “milestones of life” ceremonies.

Although CFI readily supplies secular celebrants to conduct wedding ceremonies for non-religious couples, in many jurisdictions CFI’s secular celebrants are barred by law from officially performing marriages. CFI’s secular celebrants are not religious clergy. Nor are they court officials. As such, the current law prevents them from officially performing marriages within the District of Columbia. Short of becoming judges or justices, CFI’s secular celebrants have no means of becoming certified to officially perform marriages within the District.

The Marriage Officiant Act would change this unfortunate state of affairs. By allowing secular celebrants to perform marriages as public notaries, the Act would help the Center for Inquiry’s and other secular celebrant programs to better serve the needs of the non-religious community.

CFI maintains that both religious individuals and members of the non-religious community should be able to mark life’s milestones in ways that are most personally meaningful to them. By allowing secular notaries public to perform marriages within the District, the Act will help ensure that all couples, both religious and secular, can be married by an officiant of their choosing.

The Center for Inquiry thanks the Council for considering this legislation, and urges the Council to pass the Marriage Officiant Act of 2010.

Thank you.