Michigan Secular Wedding Celebrants Challenge Religious Privilege in Solemnizing Marriages


For Immediate Release: May 31, 2018
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785

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In a lawsuit filed today with a U.S. District Court, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) is challenging Michigan’s marriage law, which limits the authority to solemnize marriages to clergy and certain government officials. By granting this unconstitutional privilege to religion, the state is denying its nonreligious residents the opportunity to have their unions formalized by a secular celebrant who shares their worldview and values.

CFI, an organization that advances reason, science, and humanist values, asserts that current Michigan law Chapter 551.7 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by bestowing exclusive authority to solemnize marriages to religious ministers, while denying that authority to Secular Celebrants.

“A religious couple can have their weddings officiated and solemnized by a representative of their faith, someone who shares their beliefs and values, as well they should,” said Nicholas Little, CFI’s Vice President and Legal Counsel. “Why deny this same basic right to the religiously unaffiliated, who make up a quarter of Michigan’s population?”

The Center for Inquiry won a landmark victory in 2014 challenging a similar law in Indiana, followed by a victory in Illinois in 2017. CFI also laid the groundwork for Secular Celebrant legislation enacted in Oregon last year, and is working with lawmakers in Ohio on a similar bill.

“It’s not enough to tell secular couples to settle for officiation by a judge that’s been assigned to them, or by someone who has been ‘ordained’ by some mail-order church,” said Little. “As Judge Easterbrook wisely pointed out in his historic decision on Indiana’s marriage law, those with a secular lifestance must not feel compelled to playact religious belief in order to have a meaningful marriage ceremony.”

When Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of CFI’s Secular Celebrants, explaining that secular couples are unwilling to “pretend to believe something they do not,” adding, “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.”

Ed Brayton, a member of the CFI Michigan community and a plaintiff in the lawsuit said, “I think that secular-minded people in the state should have their wishes respected in terms of the person they’d like to officiate important rituals like weddings and funerals and I look forward to being able to provide that for them when this suit is finished.”

“Secular Celebrants are very important for people who do not want a religious wedding or a preacher delivering a ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon at their funeral,” said Reba Boyd Wooden, director of CFI’s Secular Celebrant program, which has been training and certifying Secular Celebrants since 2009. “We have been able to help many people have a secular wedding customized to their liking and a memorial service that respects the person and their right to not be religious.”

The suit is being filed against the County Clerk of Kent County in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan. Plaintiffs will be represented by Ashley Thompson, Michael Showalter, and Jessica Sprovtsoff of the firm Schiff Hardin. Mr. Showalter represented CFI in its Illinois victory.  

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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 centerforinquiry.org.