Minnesota Atheists at the State Capitol: Report on Civil Marriage Solemnization for Atheist and Humanist Officiants
By August Berkshire
Currently Minnesota Statutes restrict who can solemnize (conduct) a civil marriage to the following categories of people (Section 517.04):
a) certain government officials,
b) the residential school superintendent of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind,
c) a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination, or
d) by any mode recognized in Section 517.18.
When we then look at Section 517.18 Civil Marriage Solemnization, it lists the following groups and their religious leaders or ceremonies: Friends or Quakers, Baha’i, Hindus, Muslims, and American Indians.
Thus there is no category for atheist and humanist civil marriage celebrants. (Note: There are some odd loopholes whereby some atheists and humanists can perform civil marriages, but they are all tied to religious affiliation. Minnesota Atheists has no religious affiliation.)
In 2014 and 2015, then State Representative Phyllis Kahn introduced legislation in the Minnesota House for us that would fix this, by adding a category for atheists and humanists. Companion legislation was introduced in the Minnesota Senate by Senator John Marty.
Unfortunately, Republicans would not support the legislation and the bills did not get hearings. Soon afterwards, the legislature was busy with the more important issue of same-sex marriage. After that passed, Democrats did not gain control of the House, Senate, and Governorship at the same time until this year.
It has taken until now for Democrats to regain control of the Minnesota House, Senate, and Governorship, thus setting the stage for likely passage of legislation that will help us.
This year, Minnesota Senator Erin Maye Quade introduced bill SF 148, which would allow notary publics to perform civil marriages. This was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t really inclusive of us. We approached her with this issue and she amended the bill to simply allow “an individual who registers as a civil marriage officiant with a local registrar in a county of this state”.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Representative John Huot introduced companion bill HF 227, which would allow notary publics to perform civil marriages. It was then amended to add “a past or current Minnesota elected official who has a certificate of election that has been filed with the local county registrar”.
And that is the current status of both bills. We spoke with Rep. John Huot to ask him if his House bill would be amended to match the Senate bill. (House and Senate bills must be identical before they can go to the Governor to be signed into law.) He said that a sticking point was that the Senate bill has no assurance that the celebrant knows how to properly fill out and file the marriage documents. We are working with Rep. John Huot to find suitable language to cover that, since it is a reasonable concern.
Ultimately, we see no reason why a couple couldn’t just walk into a county courthouse and register themselves as married, without the need for an officiant. After all, in the eyes of the law, civil marriage is simply a contract between two people. But for now, any change in the law that allows for atheist and humanist marriage celebrants is a step in the right direction.
Ed note: This is the first year since 2015 in which legislation aimed at making Minnesota governance more secular has a realistic probability of making progress in both chambers of our legislature. MNA is working to make that happen, but we can use your help. When we reach out to a legislator, they typically want to know more about MNA, including who we represent. They mean our current, paid membership. Becoming a member of MNA allows us to help you be counted in these matters.