Court Denies Atheists Right to Choose How to Get Married

For Immediate Release: December 3, 2012
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785

A federal court in Indiana has dismissed a claim that an Indiana law prohibiting secular celebrants from solemnizing marriages, while allowing religious representatives to do so, violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Center for Inquiry (CFI), the lead plaintiff in this case, characterized the decision as extraordinary for its inconsistency and its casual acceptance of the privileging of religion and religious individuals.

Indiana, like many states, specifies that marriages can only be performed (“solemnized” to use the legal jargon) by certain government officials, along with clergy and other religious representatives. This allows religious individuals the freedom to arrange for a ceremony meaningful to them, a right denied to nonbelievers. Atheists and other nonreligious Americans are given no recourse but to go before some anonymous government bureaucrat. CFI argued that either secular celebrants chosen by a couple should have the right to solemnize marriages, or else the law should be invalidated for giving the religious a privilege denied to the nonreligious.

The court dismissed CFI’s claim, reasoning that CFI was complaining about a mere “inconvenience.” However, the court then turned around and said the special privileges enjoyed by the religious were necessary and justifiable as an accommodation of religious beliefs.

“According to the court, what is a required accommodation for the religious, is just a matter of convenience for the nonreligious. It would be difficult to imagine a clearer way to classify nonbelievers as second-class citizens,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI. “A wedding is one of the most important ceremonies in a person’s life, and it is just as meaningful to atheists as it is to theists. It’s disappointing that a 21st-century court refused to recognize this reality.”

In finding that the Indiana statute did not deny equal protection to the nonreligious, the court ruled it served a rational purpose. It declined to scrutinize the statute more closely because it found no “history of purposeful unequal treatment” of nonbelievers.

“The court’s conclusion that nonbelievers have not been victims of unequal treatment is incredible,” said Reba Boyd Wooden, Executive Director of CFI’s Indiana branch and Director of CFI’s Secular Celebrant program. “There is a long, undeniable history of both legal discrimination and prejudice against nonbelievers in this country. In many states, until the 1960’s you couldn’t hold public office if you were an atheist. This stems from an outmoded attitude which says that being religious means you can be trusted, while being nonreligious means you can’t.” 

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at