Indiana News

Appeals Court Hears Indy Atheist Group's Demand to Perform Marriages

4/19/2013

A federal appeals court has taken up an Indianapolis atheist group's suit seeking the right to preside over wedding ceremonies.

The Center for Inquiry argues its secular-humanist belief system is the "functional equivalent" of a religion, and that its members should therefore be allowed to sign marriage certificates. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker rejected CFI's argument in December, ruling that the group is seeking to be classified as a religion only when it suits its purposes.

Judges with the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals peppered Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher with questions about how the state can justify granting the right to solemnize marriages to anyone from pagans to satanists. Fisher argues the only reason to draw a legal distinction between civil marriage and a religious marriage ceremony is to accommodate religious traditions which predate Indiana's constitution.

But Fisher acknowledged that the constitutionally-mandated requirement of religious neutrality means the state would allow a self-proclaimed priest of a newly-established religion to perform a ceremony as well.

Anyone, including CFI members, can preside over a marriage ceremony. The legal question centers on who can sign the marriage certificate and "solemnize" the marriage. Past court cases have allowed secular humanist groups to claim religious status and fill that role -- CFI's executive director did so under the auspices of The Humanist Society before joining the center.

But CFI is adamant about drawing a line of separation between the ethical system it espouses and "religion." Judges asked American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Falk whether that would allow Rotary or an automobile club to act as celebrants.

As is customary, the court gave no indication of when it will rule.

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