The Battle Over Who Can Perform Marriages


By Rob Boston

Marriage equality for same-sex couples has been a controversial issue in many parts of the country. But even as that dispute rages, a quieter debate is taking place affecting marriages: Who can perform them?

Laws vary from state to state and even county to county. In some places, it can be difficult for people who want a non-religious service to get one. Sure, a judge or municipal official is almost always willing to preside at a ceremony – but often during limited hours on weekdays at the courthouse.

That means if you want a big affair on a weekend surrounded by your friends and family (as many people do), you’re out of luck.

Some jurisdictions limit the ability to perform marriages to the clergy. This is being tested in Clark County, Nev., where the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of five people who are not clergy but want the power to perform marriages.

Among them is Raul Martinez. He is a member of the national board of the American Humanist Association and, according to the lawsuit, has twice applied for “a “Permanent Certificate of Authority to Solemnize Marriages” in Clark County – and been denied both times.

Notes the Las Vegas Sun, “A provision in state law regarding certificates of permission to perform marriages says in part that applications must: ‘Show the date of licensure, ordination or appointment of the minister or other person authorized to solemnize a marriage, and the name of the church or religious organization with which he is affiliated.’” (Point of disclosure: I know Martinez.)

Many states and counties these days do allow Humanist celebrants to preside at weddings. Other places, like Nevada, are recalcitrant. They shouldn’t be. I’ve never been comfortable with clergy wielding the power of the state – even if only for an afternoon. It’s time to open up the process.

Here is what I propose (although I’m not going down on one knee): In some European nations, you are married in the eyes of the state when you appear before civil officials and fill out the proper paperwork. If you want a religious ceremony later to solemnize the event with your friends and family, you contact your favorite member of the clergy and schedule one.

Thus, you are officially married by the state, not the state and the church acting in temporary partnership.

A system like that makes more sense than what we do in America because it respects everyone’s rights. Those who want a religious affair can still have one. At the same time, non-religious people are not compelled to approach a member of the clergy to perform what is essentially a government function – registering a couple’s marriage.

I hope the Nevada lawsuit is successful. I’m all for marriage, but I’m not comfortable with the church strolling down the aisle with the state. That was never a good alliance to begin with; perhaps those two should consider a divorce.


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