Atheist Wedding Celebrant Bill

Published by MNA on

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

By August Berkshire

On March 12, 2014, atheists and humanists in Minnesota made history when Minnesota State Representative Phyllis Kahn introduced what is believed to be the first legislative bill to ever mention us. House File 2966 (HF 2966) is titled “Marriage solemnization by atheist and humanist celebrants authorized.” It allows for our celebrants to legally perform civil marriages.

The bill was immediately referred to the House Civil Law Committee, where it awaits a hearing. Minnesota State Senator John Marty introduced a companion bill in the Senate: Senate File 2958 (SF 2958).

Unfortunately, this year’s legislative session is short and crowded, so these bills may not get committee hearings, meaning they will not have a chance to pass and get signed into law. If that’s the case, we hope to reintroduce them in the next legislative session. In the meantime, these bills will serve to get the conversation started. 

The original language submitted was drafted by Minnesota Atheists’ director-at-large August Berkshire and was aided by research done by Minnesota Atheists’ associate president Stephanie Zvan. (August Berkshire is also the legislative chair for the Secular Coalition for Minnesota.) The state revisor made small, inconsequential changes to what we submitted.

As submitted, the word “humanist” in the heading after Subd. 4a was capitalized. However, the state revisor indicated that it should be lower case.

Also, we had suggested that this be subd. 5, and that the current subd. 5 be relabeled as subd. 6. However, the state revisor doesn’t like to renumber statutes. So instead our section was labeled subd. 4a. Thus seems odd since subd. 4 is about American Indians, making it look like we are a subset of them. (This is not what it means legally, but that’s how it looks.) These things might be changeable in committee, or if the bills get reintroduced next session.

The clause about “training” was added because that seemed to be of concern to legislators. The national groups the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry provide such training, and it is likely that if these bills pass then local atheist and humanist groups may also establish such training. After all, the groups that sponsor these celebrants will want them to do a good job, as it will reflect back on the groups.

At one point we had considered the broader category of “Non-Profit Educational Organizations.” However, since atheist and humanist organizations are the only groups seeking this, and since the legislature seems reluctant to expand the number of people who officiate a marriage too much, it was decided to go back to the narrower category of just “Atheists and Humanists.”

Minnesota Atheists had also endorsed the addition of notaries public and temporary celebrants (people who just wanted to officiate at a single ceremony, usually for close friends). By coincidence, another legislator introduced a bill for notaries public, so we don’t have to worry about that. And it now seems unlikely that temporary celebrants would be approved, given the legislature’s reluctance to expand the franchise.

This effort by Minnesota Atheists to change the law has the support of the Humanists of Minnesota and the Secular Coalition for Minnesota. It is hoped that other atheist and humanist organizations throughout the state will also support this effort.

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