MN Atheists Seeks to Change Law to Allow Atheists to Perform Marriages

Published by MNA on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

Minnesota Atheists has restarted our process to change Minnesota state law to allow atheist leaders to conduct civil marriages. We began this project a few years ago but then the marriage amendment and the marriage equality legislation intervened. We knew that the Minnesota state legislature was not going to tackle both gay and atheist marriage issues in the same year.

Civil marriage laws are primarily a state issue, not a federal issue. This is why things such as the age at which a person can marry vary from state to state. Only rarely does the national government get involved, such as in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that no state can prohibit interracial civil marriage. Currently same-sex marriage is on a state-by-state basis, though many of us hope the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a similar ruling ending discrimination in this area as well.

The person who can legally officiate at a civil marriage also varies from state to state. In some states you only need to be a notary public. Civil marriage laws in Minnesota are primarily covered in statutes 517.001-517.23. For at least twenty years, atheist leaders have been concerned that Minnesota law does not allow for atheist leaders per se to conduct civil marriages. Here is the law as it now stands:

517.04 Persons Authorized To Perform Marriages.
Marriages may be solemnized throughout the state by an individual who has attained the age of 21 years and is a judge of a court of record, a retired judge of a court of record, a court administrator, a retired court administrator with the approval of the chief judge of the judicial district, a former court commissioner who is employed by the court system or is acting pursuant to an order of the chief judge of the commissioner’s judicial district, the residential school administrators of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination, or by any mode recognized in section 517.18. For purposes of this section, a court of record includes the Office of Administrative Hearings under section 14.48.

When we look at Section 517.18, which is mentioned at the end of Section 517.04, we see a list of groups that have gained enough stature in Minnesota to make sure they were covered by the law:

517.18 Marriage Solemnization.
Subdivision 1. Friends or Quakers. All marriages solemnized among the people called Friends or Quakers, in the form heretofore practiced and in use in their meetings, shall be valid and not affected by any of the foregoing provisions. The clerk of the meeting in which such marriage is solemnized, within one month after any such marriage, shall deliver a certificate of the same to the local registrar of the county where the marriage took place, under penalty of not more than $100. Such certificate shall be filed and recorded by the court administrator under a like penalty. If such marriage does not take place in such meeting, such certificate shall be signed by the parties and at least six witnesses present, and shall be filed and recorded as above provided under a like penalty.
Subd. 2. Baha’i. Marriages may be solemnized among members of the Baha’i faith by the chair of an incorporated local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, according to the form and usage of such society.
Subd. 3. Hindus; Muslims. Marriages may be solemnized among Hindus or Muslims by the person chosen by a local Hindu or Muslim association, according to the form and usage of their respective religions.
Subd. 4. American Indians. Marriages may be solemnized among American Indians according to the form and usage of their religion by an Indian Mide’ or holy person chosen by the parties to the marriage.
Subd. 5. Construction of section. Nothing in subdivisions 2 to 4 shall be construed to alter the requirements of section 517.01, 517.09 or 517.10.

The less one attempts to change a law, the more likely one is to achieve success. It therefore seems that our best chance to achieve equality for atheist wedding celebrants is to simply have our own subdivision in Section 517.18.

A few years ago, Minnesota Atheists approached Minnesota state legislators and asked how we could change the marriage law to include atheist leaders. They brought up two issues they felt we needed to address: First, how do you define an atheist group—as opposed to, say, the Sierra Club? Second, how do you provide oversight, so that it’s not just a group of random people?

With these objectives in mind, we came up with this addition to Section 517.18:

Subd. 5. Atheists and Humanists. Marriages may be solemnized by atheist or humanist celebrants appointed by the board of directors of self-identified atheist or humanist organizations that are registered as nonprofits with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office and have 501(c)3 nonprofit status with the federal government.

With the addition of this subdivision, the current Subdivision 5 would be renumbered as Subdivision 6.

The phrase “self-identified atheist or humanist organizations” answers the question of how we define an atheist group: we define ourselves. There are other nonprofits, like the Sierra Club, that are atheist in the sense that they don’t mention a god, and which are humanist in the sense that they do good works, but they don’t self-identify as atheist or humanist. (The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis identifies itself as a religious humanist group, but since they are already covered by the law this shouldn’t be a problem.)

The phrases “board of directors,” “registered as nonprofits with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office,” and “501(c)3 nonprofit status with the federal government” provide the oversight that we believe the legislators are looking for. I don’t know of a well-established religion operating in Minnesota that isn’t registered with the state and doesn’t have 501(c)3 nonprofit status, so it’s not unreasonable to ask us to have it. Although some atheist and humanist groups in Minnesota don’t have this status, they could get it if they wished. In the meantime, groups like Minnesota Atheists could appoint marriage celebrants from their groups if we felt confident they could do a good job.

We would also like to modify Section 517.05, as shown below. Strikeout text indicates deletions and underlined text indicates additions.

517.05 Credentials of Minister or Celebrant.
Ministers of any religious denomination, or atheist or humanist celebrants, before they are authorized to solemnize a marriage, shall file a copy of their credentials of license or ordination or, if their religious denomination organization does not issue credentials, authority from the minister’s spiritual assembly their governing board, with the local registrar of a county in this state, who shall record the same and give a certificate of filing thereof. The place where the credentials are recorded shall be endorsed upon and recorded with each certificate of marriage granted by a minister or celebrant.

Rather than deleting the word “minister” and replacing it with a neutral term, we thought we’d have a better chance of having this pass by simply adding the word “celebrant.” Two other changes, substituting “organization” for “religious denomination,” and “governing board” for “the minister’s spiritual assembly,” do use neutral terms to replace religious wording, and it may be that we’ll end up having to use added wording there instead.

Our wording is subject to change, either by suggestions from our members or by legislators. However, we will oppose any attempts to call atheism a religion. Our suggested changes have met with the approval of the boards of directors of Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota. Equally important, they meet with the approval of someone willing to sponsor this legislation: Minnesota State Representative Phyllis Kahn.

Some people have suggested that we simply enroll our leaders in the on-line Universal Life Church (ULC) so they can perform marriages that way. But the reason the state of Minnesota accepts ULC credentials is because the ULC is a religion. On their website you can pursue your spiritual beliefs, become ordained as a minister, submit prayer requests, and engage in on-line confession. Their Credentials of Ministry are issued by their monastery and signed by a chaplain. They are registered with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office as the Universal Life Church of God.

Therefore, the worst thing we could do would be to have our leaders become Universal Life Church ministers. If we were to follow this approach, we could anticipate the following responses from legislators:

1. This just proves that atheists are unethical. Atheist leaders becoming religious ministers in order to perform atheist weddings demonstrates that atheists have no ethics, values, or scruples. At best they are hypocritical and at worst they are unethical. Why should we do anything to advance the welfare of this group of people?

2. Changing the law is unnecessary. Look, an atheist leader was able to perform an atheist wedding ceremony, so what’s the problem? Why do we have to change the law? Did that leader object to registering as a religious minister? Then why did he or she do it? The couple could still have gotten married by a judge.

3. Atheism is a religion. If an atheist leader is willing to consider himself or herself a religious minister, this means atheism is a religion, so we don’t need to change the law.

The most effective way to protest a law is to protest it, not to give in to it. You don’t protest being forced to ride at the back of the bus by riding at the back of the bus.

So, now that we have come up with a draft of suitable language, our next steps are:

1. Find a Minnesota Senate sponsor. We have a couple of legislators in mind already.

2. Once a sponsor is found in both houses, have our members contact their State Representatives and State Senators to be cosponsors of the bills.

3. Once the bills are introduced, have our members contact their State Representatives and State Senators to vote for the bills in committee and on the floor.

4. With the help of the MNA membership, find community leaders who can testify on our behalf, including religious leaders and leaders from organizations such as the ACLU and OutFront Minnesota. Ideally the bills would pass on their merits, but some legislators may need the political cover of testimony from community leaders, especially religious leaders. Since we would strongly defend religious groups if, for example, the state attempted to force them to conduct same-sex or interfaith marriages, we expect that at least some of them will be willing to help us.

Finally, what approach should we take to passing these bills? The most effective strategy will be one that is friendly, positive, and low key. We should treat this change as one whose time has come, as something that corrects an oversight, and as a simple matter of technical revision.

It would be counterproductive to grandstand, to send out press releases, to take a victim stance, and to accuse the legislators of discrimination and religious privilege. Why? Because the legislature has never been asked to do this before, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they will do the right thing.

We are not changing the definition of civil marriage, nor are we affecting any rights or privileges religion now has. This should be an easy vote for the legislature, and a much easier one than the marriage equality vote which passed readily.

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