Marriage in the United States of America

In comparison to Canada and many other countries, the USA has relatively few restrictions on who can perform a marriage. Each state has its own regulations but many take a liberal approach to recognizing religious representatives, up to and including recognizing representatives with ordinations from online or mail-in churches such as the Universal Life Church or satirical religions.


The Universal Life Church has ordained over 20 million people, including Conan O'Brien, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Richard Branson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dwayne Johnson, Paul McCartney, and Sir Ian McKellen. Many people choose to become ordained by the Church as it permits them to perform marriages in most states and has few tenets.

By registering as a religion, The Humanist Society has been able to register over 100 celebrants in 33 states and continues to grow. The Humanist Society has worked as a branch of the American Humanist Association since 1991, and in November of 2014 was endorsed by the Board Chaplaincy Certification Inc, an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains.

However, not all Humanists support the idea of registering as a religion, which is the only way forward in some states.

To challenge this restriction in the state of Indiana, the Center of Inquiry (CFI) launched a lawsuit in 2012 and argued that “the government violates the Establishment Clause because it endorses religion over non-religion by allowing religious leaders to sign marriage certificates, yet not allowing CFI-trained secular celebrants.” They also argued that “it is not equal protection under the laws to allow religions to identify who can perform weddings but not allow CFI.”

The case was struck down by Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana who called marriage an act of religious “accommodation”. CFI won on appeal in 2014 with a unanimous vote overturning the lower court’s decision. The Court of Appeal’s ruling used words such as “irrational, hypocritical, and absurd” to describe the system that was in place before this appeal, which would only “allow Humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion’.” The Court recognized the irrationality of selling a preferred position and credentials “to anyone with a credit card” over other belief systems and that “Humanists want a ceremony that celebrates their values, not the ‘values’ of people who will say or do whatever it takes to jump through some statutory hoop.”

In 2016, CFI challenged a similar restriction in the state of Illinois. CFI argued on behalf of one of its celebrants that the state denies first amendment rights to CFI for restricting the ceremonies it can perform and persons wishing to be married by secular celebrants. They also argued that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In January 2017, the US District Court ruled that excluding secular celebrants from the list of those authorized to solemnize marriage was unconstitutional.

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