Federal Court Rejects Atheist Group’s Challenge Against Indiana Marriage Law

A federal court has rejected a lawsuit that was filed this year against the state of Indiana, which claimed that it is unconstitutional for current marriage laws to prohibit atheists from performing wedding ceremonies.

As previously reported, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), headquartered in New York, challenged the state’s marriage law on behalf of John Keil and Michelle Landrum, who are to be wed next year. The couple, being atheists, wish to be joined in matrimony by a “secular celebrant,” but said that the law only recognizes clergy or government workers as officiators.

“As an organization, the Center for Inquiry desires that its secular celebrants perform weddings for all those who request such wedding, both members and nonmembers,” the lawsuit outlined. “The Center for Inquiry-Indiana believes this to be an important community service for persons desiring to have a meaningful, but nonreligious, wedding.”

The group said that although some government employees may be atheists, it wants more freedom to perform weddings itself and host them in any location that the couple desires — rather than in a judge’s chambers or other office.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker denied the atheists’ motion on Friday, stating that marriage itself is a religious institution, and that she did not believe the Center for Inquiry would prevail on the merits of their claims because the Indiana state law does not infringe upon the Constitution.

“We in no way intend to question or disparage plaintiff’s opinions regarding the institution of marriage,” Barker wrote. “But, we must gently remind plaintiffs that the free exercise clause (of the Constitution) is not a guarantee against inconvenience.”

“Because Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate actual success on the merits in either of their stated causes of action, their remaining arguments are wholly unavailing,” she continued. “As a result, and pursuant to guiding case law, plaintiffs’ motion for permanent injunctive relief must be denied. Final judgment shall now issue in conjunction with this entry.”

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Therefore, the “secular celebrants” that The Center for Inquiry has been training to perform wedding ceremonies will not be allowed to officiate services under the law.

The Center for Inquiry President Ron Lindsay says that he plans to appeal the decision.

“It would be difficult to imagine a clearer way to classify nonbelievers as second-class citizens,” Lindsay commented in a written statement. “A wedding is one of the most important ceremonies in a person’s life, and it is just as meaningful to atheists as it is to theists. It’s disappointing that a 21st-century court refused to recognize this reality.”

“If we were denying equal rights to Jews or Muslims or LGBT people or an ethnic group, people would not accept that at all,” Reba Boyd Wooden of the local Indiana chapter told reporters.

However, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who defended the statute in court, continues to assert that the lawsuit was baseless.

“We appreciate the court’s decision that upholds the constitutionality of the legislature’s very reasonable requirement for determining who can solemnize a marriage for the public purpose of filing a marriage license at the county clerk’s office,” he said.

“The court found that couples who wish to marry without involving clergy have many alternatives for doing so,” Zoeller continued. “My office will continue to defend the statute if necessary.”


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