Texas couples who hope to marry - and leave religion completely out of it - suffered a setback this week.
A Texas judge ruled last week to dismiss a civil suit challenging the state’s long-standing law that says only government officials and clergy can perform marriages in the state.
The Center for Inquiry, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes secular values, filed the suit last year against Dallas County Clerk John Warren. In its complaint - brought on behalf of two Texas members of the nonprofit who want to officiate weddings - the group charged that the law is unconstitutional because it violates nonreligious Americans’ rights as spelled out in the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the establishment clause.
In her decision issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle conceded that the Texas statute may provide a “benefit to religious groups and their adherents over nonreligious ones” but said no “constitutional rights are violated” by the law.
She wrote that “the state has an interest in … ensuring the respect, solemnity, and gravity of marriage ceremonies” and that the “Statute in this case rationally serves that purpose.” Only judges and religious leaders can “reasonably be expected” to maintain the appropriate ceremonial dignity, Boyle wrote.
The Center for Inquiry, which has forced two other states to allow secular officiants through similar lawsuits over the past decade, said it would appeal the ruling. Warren’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Nicholas Little, the Center for Inquiry’s vice president and general counsel, said he was shocked by the judge’s ruling, which he called “ridiculous.”
“What business is it of the state of Texas what the level of solemnity in your marriage ceremony is?” Little asked in an interview. “What if you want to get married by an Elvis impersonator? That’s not the state’s business!”
About 35 states have laws that limit the pool of people who can perform marriages to religious or government officials, Little said. The Center for Inquiry is working to reduce that number: In 2014, it won a case against Indiana that compelled the state to allow secular marriage officiants. In 2017, the nonprofit scored a similar victory in Illinois.
Some constitutional law experts said that the judge in the Texas case used faulty arguments and that the Center for Inquiry’s line of reasoning has obvious merit.
Wedding officiants in the United States fall into two broad categories, University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock said: public and private individuals. Judges and government officials such as mayors count as public citizens, while clergy count as private citizens.
By declaring that only clergy - religious private individuals - can perform marriages, while barring nonreligious private individuals from doing the same, the Texas law goes against the establishment clause of the constitution, said Laycock, who studies constitutional law and religious liberty.
“It’s obviously unconstitutional because it gives a benefit to religious groups and denies that same benefit to comparable secular groups,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard professor of constitutional law. “However - and this is a big ‘however’ - this is also an exemplar of the kind of law that might well survive judicial scrutiny.”
Courts may not want to declare state marriage laws like Texas’s unconstitutional because “it’s such a well-established tradition” and they “don’t want to rock the boat,” Feldman said. Laycock agreed, noting he was “pleasantly surprised” to learn of the Center for Inquiry’s lawsuit.
“This hasn’t come up very often before because everyone is so used to it and because it just seemed the natural order of things,” Laycock said.
Little said the Center for Inquiry, which began authorizing nonreligious Americans to perform weddings in 2009, wants to “fight this battle now” because the country’s shifting religious demographics demand action. He pointed to statistics suggesting that the United States is increasingly less religious - including in a recent Gallup poll that found the number of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2018.
The Center for Inquiry plans to file more lawsuits against a range of states in the coming months, according to Little.
“There’s this growing number of secular people, of agnostic or atheistic people who follow no particular religion, who want to have their wedding reflect their values,” Little said. “So we’re saying, ‘Hey! Add an extra category of people who can solemnize marriages!’ “
It is already possible to wed in America while leaving religion out of the picture. For one thing, there’s the option of a judge or government official. In a handful of states and the District of Columbia, one of the people getting married can act as the officiant.
And nonreligious people sometimes turn to Internet ministers: people who go online, spend a few minutes filling out a survey and receive a free ordination and license to perform weddings.
The widespread availability of these alternative nuptials may be another reason few have tried to declare state marriage laws unconstitutional before now, Laycock and Feldman said.
Scott Stanley, a professor at the University of Denver who studies marriage and commitment, said some believe it’s already too easy to get married in the United States. Conservative scholars and religious leaders could worry that the Center for Inquiry’s campaign for secular officiants will inspire more couples to tie the knot “who are not as serious about marriage as others,” he said.
Stanley, though, said he is more concerned that the Texas judge’s ruling could have a chilling effect on marriages in the state.
“Lots of people are seeking options outside the two traditional channels to conduct their ceremonies, so this could just lower the number of people getting married,” Stanley said. Plus, it’s probably better if couples can “choose an officiant that is meaningful to them as they take their vows,” he added.
That’s another reason Little is determined to advocate for the legalization of secular wedding officiants across the country. He said that there aren’t enough paths for nonreligious men and women to wed in the United States, and that Internet ordination, which is legal in Texas but was recently barred in Tennessee, isn’t a fair alternative. Little called it ludicrous that some nonreligious people must profess false sentiments online to earn a possibly bizarre religious affiliation - all in pursuit of the wedding they want.
“Right now, I can go online and take two minutes out of my time and go to the ‘Church of Bacon’ or something and solemnize a marriage in Texas,” Little said. “Do they honestly want people lying and claiming to be religious like this in order to do a ceremony?”
Feldman said the Center for Inquiry may wind up arguing its case before the Supreme Court if it presses its agenda before a sufficient number of state circuit courts of appeal - and if those courts issue a large enough number of contradictory rulings.
“That may not be the case today or tomorrow, but if this group is dedicated and keeps it up, there’s a real plausible chance,” Feldman said. “It’s neither more nor less significant than many issues the Supreme Court has considered.”