SALT LAKE CITY — Steve Bratteng isn't religious, but he does have a moral code.
So when Bratteng, a self-described atheist and humanist, was asked to officiate a wedding recently, he wouldn't lie about his beliefs in order to get ordained online, a step often taken by people officiating a wedding for friends or family members.
"Part of being a humanist is being honest and true to yourself. Using a Universal Life Church certification workaround is not honest," he said.
Bratteng, who serves as director of a secular community group in Austin, Texas, is a trained secular celebrant, which means he's attended a course on leading weddings, funerals or other ceremonies for people who don't want religion to be part of their event. However, state law doesn't allow him to use this training to officiate weddings, so he had to turn the couple down.
Bratteng's conundrum isn't unique. Most states across the country allow only judges and other state officials, as well as people ordained by religious organizations, to officiate weddings.
"It can't be done by secular celebrants in a vast majority of states," said Nick Little, vice president and legal counsel for The Center for Inquiry, a secular organization that advocates for keeping religion out of public policy.
The Center wants that to change. It filed a lawsuit last month along with Bratteng against the clerk of Dallas County, Texas, as part of an ongoing effort to change marriage laws. Similar challenges have already succeeded in Indiana and Illinois.
These legal and legislative efforts aren't aimed at reducing the rights of faith groups, Little said. Instead, the goal is to ensure that the growing number of nonreligious Americans are free to do what they want on their big day.
"There are a lot of people out there looking for someone to help them celebrate key events in their lives" who aren't religious, Little said.
The Center for Inquiry has struggled more with the slow pace of political change than outcries from people of faith. However, some Americans do worry about what an increase in secular weddings will do to the country's moral character.
"Religion imbues marriage and families with value, commitments and permanence that neither law nor culture can confer. Society is impoverished when fewer couples enter marriage through this portal," argued Religion News Service columnist Jacob Lupfer earlier this year.
States care about who can solemnize, or officiate, a wedding ceremony because marriage is serious business, according to Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor and director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois. It comes with legal and financial benefits, like shared insurance coverage.
"Marriage is a vehicle for handing out so many benefits and protections," Wilson said. "If you had a free-for-all, with basically anybody being allowed to marry you, you'd have fraud concerns."
States reduce the possibility of fraud by limiting the pool of eligible wedding officiants. Typically, the only people who can solemnize a wedding are government or religious leaders.
For example, the Texas law at issue in the lawsuit states that only "a licensed or ordained Christian minister or priest, a Jewish rabbi, a person who is an officer of a religious organization and who is authorized by the organization to conduct a marriage ceremony," judges or retired judges can conduct a marriage ceremony.
"There's a shared jurisdiction over marriage between ecclesiastical and civil authorities," Wilson said.
But these limitations aren't as limiting as they might at first appear, Wilson said. Governments don't want to get caught up in deciding what counts as a religious organization or defining ordination requirements, and so organizations like the Universal Life Church — a faith group that allows ministers "to practice their religion in whatever manner they feel most comfortable" and offers no theological guidance — can ordain anyone who comes to their website and has a few minutes to spare.
The Center for Inquiry has called attention to this situation while reaching out to legislators across the country. It's wrong that states reject someone who has been trained to be a secular celebrant but accept someone who has simply filled out a form online, Little said.
Secular celebrants "could go online and spend three minutes getting ordained and then perform services by pretending to be religious," he said. "That's actually insulting to religion."
Searching for solutions
The Center for Inquiry files lawsuits as a last resort, Little said. He prefers when lawmakers acknowledge that secular celebrants wouldn't undermine current laws and make necessary adjustments.
"This can often be sorted out with a one sentence amendment," he said.
Oregon changed its marriage law to allow for secular celebrants last year, and the Center is working on a similar measure right now in Ohio. The Oregon law states that a celebrant of any secular organization, defined as a group "that occupies a place in the lives of organization's members parallel to that filled by a church," can solemnize marriages.
Sometimes lawmakers don't respond to the Center for Inquiry's requests or they move slowly, which prompts the Center to take legal action. In addition to the lawsuit in Texas, the organization is currently challenging marriage policies in Michigan. It previously won lawsuits in Indiana and Illinois.
These cases involve "a series of constitutional arguments," Little said. The Center for Inquiry claims typical officiant requirements privilege religious Americans over nonreligious ones, violating the First Amendment's establishment clause and the Constitution's promise of equal protection for all citizens.
"States are discriminating against people who want to perform secular weddings and people who want to have secular weddings," Little said.
Initially, in Indiana, these arguments didn't work. The federal district court ruled that limitations on officiants enabled the state to maintain control of marriage and were not discriminatory.
"(Indiana's) statute bears a rational relation to the … reasonable purpose of allowing the government to assume responsibility for the marriage regulation function without ostracizing its religious constituents," the ruling said.
The ruling also implied that secular celebrants were making a big deal about what seemed to be a small inconvenience. Nothing prevented secular people from hosting their own wedding ceremony in addition to being wed by a judge or getting ordained online through the Universal Life Church, it explained.
Reactions like that have been a key obstacle to the Center for Inquiry's efforts, Little said. People want secular couples to play along with the current system.
"I think what we're dealing with isn't so much opposition as it is inertia," he said.
To some community members, a lawsuit seems like an overreaction, Bratteng said.
"Some people have mentioned to me that Texas is a common law (marriage) state," which means couples don't have to participate in any sort of ceremony to declare themselves officially wed, Bratteng noted. They just have to agree to marry, announce it and live together after that declaration, according to Texas law.
Lawmakers who are religious themselves or represent a highly religious area of their state can also worry about the optics of paving the way toward more nonreligious weddings, noted Rep. Mitch Greenlick, who sponsored the Oregon legislation allowing for secular officiants.
"It took me 2 1/2 sessions" to pass the secular celebrant law, he said. "It made people nervous, especially if they were religious."
The rise of non-church weddings, which is helped along by online ordination, is concerning to people of faith who believe religious ceremonies lead to stronger marriages. Only 1 in 5 ceremonies (22 percent) in 2017 took place in a church, down from 41 percent in 2009, according to The Knot.
"Marriage without religion … trivializes the importance of a lifelong commitment made between two people," argued blogger Melanie Wilcox in a 2014 post about the Universal Life Church.
The Center for Inquiry's efforts to change officiating laws include educating policymakers and members of the public about why secular celebrants matter. When states allow for nonreligious officiants, atheists aren't the only ones who gain, Little said.
"We get requests from people who are religious but who are marrying someone from a different faith. They don't want to have a representative of either religion" at their ceremony, he said.
Secular people don't want to be seen as pests or whiners, Bratteng said. They want people to recognize the pain of not being able to have the wedding you want.
"We want to have a system that acknowledges that secular people are citizens that deserve the same rights as religious folks do and can do the rites of passage that others do in their own way," he said.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals paved the way for that kind of system in 2014, when it overruled the District Court's decision regarding Indiana's marriage policy. The ruling stated that it's "irrational" to respect secular celebrants only if they lie about their religious beliefs.
"A marriage solemnized by a self-declared hypocrite would leave a sour taste in (a) couple's mouths; like many others, 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," the ruling said.27 comments on this story
Although the Center for Inquiry still has work to do to convince lawmakers and judges across the country to agree with that ruling, Little is confident that necessary changes will eventually happen.
"We believe this is a no-lose situation," Little said "Nobody loses by letting secular celebrants (solemnize weddings) and people do gain."
Some current wedding officiants disagree, especially if they're worried about secular celebrants cutting into their profits.
"This is going to make (the wedding market) only more crowded and hurt the officiants who take it seriously," said one officiant in a 2017 article for the website Best Wedding Oregon.