They Can’t Get Married (and They’re Straight!) September 23, 2007

They Can’t Get Married (and They’re Straight!)


Mary Jo Knelly and David Huggins-Daines have their wedding next Saturday, September 29th. They requested a marriage license last month. Specifically, they wanted to be married without an officiant (i.e. a priest).

Their request was denied by Timothy W. Finnerty, the Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Register of Wills Solicitor.

… According to Pennsylvania law, Finnerty wrote, “There is no provision for the individuals to officiate at their own marriage.”

Finnerty told the couple that only those of the Quaker and Bah’ai faiths may perform their own weddings,

The couple is suing the Allegheny County Register of Wills. One of their lawyers, Sara J. Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said this:

“Allowing those two faiths but not any others is a very clear-cut example of preferential treatment,” Rose said. “The First Amendment says Congress shall not pass any law respecting one religion over another or that endorses one over another.”

The couple just wants equal treatment:

“I have a deep appreciation for many of the Quaker traditions, particularly their marriage ceremony, and Mary Jo shares this conviction,” Huggins-Daines said in a statement provided by the couple’s lawyers. “Therefore, given a choice, this is how we wish to solemnize our marriage.”

Rose said the couple’s complaint was the third in two months the ACLU received in which the Register of Wills denied a request to self-officiate a wedding.

“They invited 100 people to witness their exchange of vows,” said Roslyn M. Litman, another lawyer for the couple. “The Register of Wills’ position is clearly discriminatory.”

If you are registered with the US Court’s PACER system, you can see the lawsuit here.

The wedding looks to be proceeding as scheduled, but it won’t be official anytime soon:

A federal judge did not immediately schedule a hearing on the ACLU’s request for an injunction ordering the county to issue the self-uniting license in time for their Sept. 29 wedding. The ACLU also wants the judge to strike down the county’s current policy and seeks other unspecified damages.

Incidentally, there are Humanist Celebrants across the country who can officiate non-religious weddings. That’s not what this couple wanted, but it’s a good resource to have.

(Thanks to Colin for the link!)

[tags]atheist, atheism, Humanist Celebrant[/tags]

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  • Jen

    What an interesting and strange story. I have never heard of anyone performing their own wedding, but why the hell not? And if people of some faiths can, then why not everyone? Now that I think about it, I don’t know why someone needs to perform the ceremony at all; as long as there is a witness so people can’ demand benefits retroactively, it should be legal.

    I am curious how this case will play out in light of all the whining about marrage in America. I don’t know what to do about the future of marriage, personally. On the one hand, part of me wants the state to only perform “civil unions” between whoever wants to enter into a specific legal contract that deals with inheritance, children, visiting hospital rooms, and all those other things. On the other hand, I want everyone to get the social and legal benefits that come from the word “marriage” even as that word is shifting cultural context, and I don’t want to leave it to only the religious. I don’t particularly care, and since I don’t believe in lifelong monogamy enforced by laws (in 11 states!) it probably won’t effect me.

  • That’s ridiculous. Pennsylvania should have provisions for Quaker marriages which are performed without an officiant but by the couple.

    I can relate to their problem, however. I was married under the care of a Quaker meeting. We had to go through all kinds of hoops to get our marriage on file with the state and it ended up in the San Mateo County property register of all places!

    I hope this couple can engage a competent family law lawyer who can guide them.

  • P.S. That’s what we did.

  • Sorry for being so yappy about this, but you struck close to home.

    California now has an alternate marriage license which requires the signatures of three witnesses. This seems to me to be a reasonable way of handling all marriages: why should a minister be accorded any more weight than any other person? It wouldn’t be so bad if couples had to find two additional witnesses to their vows. You can call them up from the congregation or get the Best Man/Maid of Honor to sign on.

    OK, enough for now.

  • Interesting quote from the Time Leader article :

    But Rose said the U.S. Supreme Court, in cases involving conscientious military objectors, has said that deeply held personal beliefs are considered “religious” even if they don’t flow from a religion.

    “Just because something’s secular, doesn’t mean it’s not religious,” Rose said.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing these precedents, as it is a fairly broad legal definition of religion.

  • What I find most curious about this is that I “officiated” at a marriage in Allegheny County – I use scare quotes because the couple used a Quaker license without being Quakers or Bah’ai. My role there was purely symbolic (except for signing as a witness – but anyone else could have done that in my place). No, I’m not registered as a Humanist Celebrant, either.

    That couple was in the same position as this one, but they didn’t have any trouble obtaining the license. It makes me wonder if they are getting stricter on issuing those licenses.

    Joe M: Rose is incorrect because secular by definition means “not religious.” He might as well being saying “just because something is black doesn’t mean it’s white” or “just because some one is married doesn’t mean they aren’t a bachelor.” I would very much mind seeing “secular” defined as “religious.” Not only is that a violation of basic logic, but imagine the mischief the Christian Right would do over teaching any secular philosophies in schools – it would always be a violation of church/state separation.

  • Well, I agree that Rose’s quote is incorrect by a dictionary definition of “secular”, but legal definitions of a concept do not always agree with the book definition. If a court of law has defined religion as including strongly held secular beliefs, then that sets a precedent that can be used in further court cases.

  • Do you mean to say that a justice of the peace or a ship’s captain could not officiate at their wedding? It’s easy enough to hire a JP; and aside from a few legal requirements, he or she will usually let the couple write their entire ceremony.

  • Exterminator: when I got married in the Quaker way, we didn’t want anyone officiating because that meant our marriage was made by someone other than us. As in the case of these people, there were those who told us that we should just sneak in a JP or a minister. But that defeated the point: marriage is made by its participants, not a minister or a JP. If God is involved, we don’t need an intermediary. If not, we don’t need anyone else. It is for us to create and work out.

    The symbolism of the ceremony, therefore, is important as a matter of conscience.

    I want to note that our difficulties in getting the thing staged (in a twenty four hour period, I might add) aided in the passage of the bill which reformed the way that marriages may be conducted in the State of California. Our State Senator helped us with the paperwork and was so shocked at what we had to go through that she voted for the measure.

  • Eliza

    We had a friend with a mail order ordination officiate at our wedding. It was the 2nd wedding she’d ever done. She had some stock stuff to say, but basically we all wrote it together.

    (Actually, it was my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law, whom I call my “sister-in-law-squared”; trying to explain the relationship always causes brows to furrow, but many married people have someone like this in the extended family tree. A sister-in-law’s sister-in-law, that is, who is not ones self. Sort of like your first cousins have grandparents who are not your grandparents. Yikes, enough of that.)

    But it is weird, now that you mention it, that you should have to have someone “official” marry you, & that person can be anyone from a judge to a religious officiant of any flavor, but it HAS to be SOMEONE. Like we can’t trust people to enter into marriage without oversight?? And look how well THAT requirement has worked at keeping marriage a “sacred” institution!

    Shouldn’t any pair of consenting adults (of any gender) who wishes to be counted as a married couple be able to just sign up at the county courthouse, and celebrate the event with a private ceremony of any sort at all that they like (or, none at all if they want)? What the heck is wrong with that????????

    [Wait, let me guess. God would be mad….that’s the reason, right?]

  • I think maybe we’re confusing the religious concept of marriage with the legal concept of marriage. If you want to be “officially” married for legal purposes, you have to follow the government’s rules. I don’t support those rules, necessarily, but that’s the way marriage works until voters change it. First of all, you’ve got to get a marriage license. Second, you have to be of a certain age, which varies from state to state. Third, most states (maybe all) require that you show proof that any previous legal marriages have been terminated officially. No state (as far as I know) insists that you have a religious officiant, but a marriage is not recognized by the government — that is, it doesn’t have legal weight — unless the couple has a state-approved officiant of some kind. Maybe in some states the bride and groom themselves can be approved to act in this capacity; but in most states, that’s not the case.

    If you don’t care about governmental or religious sanction of your marriage, then you’re free to hold whatever ceremony you choose, or none at all. There are millions of couples living together in loving, “marital” relationships who have chosen this option. But if you want to be officially recognized by the state, and “earn” whatever benefits accrue to you as a married couple, you must follow the government’s rules, just as you must follow them when you get a driver’s license or register your child for public school.

    That’s what all the fuss over gay marriage is about. Homosexuals want the same governmental entitlements that other married couples have. They want to be allowed to have a government-approved officiant.

    This really isn’t a religious issue at all.

  • Siamang

    If God is involved, we don’t need an intermediary. If not, we don’t need anyone else. It is for us to create and work out.

    The symbolism of the ceremony, therefore, is important as a matter of conscience.

    And yet the state is irrevocably involved.

  • Siamang

    My wife and I, both atheists (my wife was better described as a nontheist at the time), were married by a Reverend.

    She was extremely broad in how much “God” could be in our ceremony… we could leave the God stuff out if we wanted.

  • HappyNat

    She was extremely broad in how much “God” could be in our ceremony… we could leave the God stuff out if we wanted.

    Our wedding was similar. We picked a Reverend my wife had seen before and knew she didn’t need to mention god. during the planning session she asked how much she should mention god, my wife and I said at the same time “none”. We also wrote our own vows and readings, so she didn’t say much of anything, she was just a witness in the middle of everything.

  • Steelman

    My wife and I chose an officiant who was open to any type of religious or, in our case, non-religious ceremony. I was the officiant for my wife’s cousin’s non-religious wedding. Here in California, anyone over the age of 18 can go to the local courthouse and become a “One-Time Deputy Marriage Commissioner, Without Compensation” for a $50 fee and a quick swearing-in. The commission is only good for one wedding on a certain date. Those two could have a friend perform a civil ceremony for them…in California, anyway.

  • The Exterminator: We have a right to ask if the Government’s rules are fair and within the parameters of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Requiring an officiant is going beyond the mere formality of having a document drawn up and filed in the local courthouse. It is declaring that a certain ritual must be followed and that is beyond the authority of the State of Pennsylvania.

    Not having your marriage registered with the State can have repercussions on your taxes and your residency if you are a foreign-born married to an American. You cannot dismiss this lightly.

    No one here has brought up a single justification for why a marriage must have an officiant when an alternate means of registering the marriage — the requirement for three witnesses — is available and easily implemented.

    It ~is~ a matter of conscience on the part of the young couple. And it is a matter of religion because the State of Pennsylvania allows Bahai and Quakers to marry without an officiant. That they don’t extend the privilege to others who don’t wish to have an officiant for their own reasons is favoring religion over secular. They are saying who can have what rite. And that is none of the State’s business.

  • cyber_rigger

    Come to Texas. You just need a Notary Public.

  • Kelli

    I think the (i.e. a priest) part is a little misleading. I was married in Allegheny county by a judge. This post makes it seem as if you MUST have a religious officiant, and thats just not true.

  • South East Texas

    Get a damn JP and shut up!

  • cyber rigger: Sounds fair to me. In South Carolina, all you have to do is walk up to someone and say “We’re married”. I suppose the couple could honeymoon at Myrtle Beach for a weekend and sign themselves as Mr. and Mrs. 🙂

    Kelli: The issue again is that Quakers and Bahais get to have the sort of ceremony that the couple wants — without an officiant. They are being denied because they are atheists. IMHO That’s not fair.

  • aaron odonahue

    marriage in wisconsin allows you to marry yourself if the religios society/religion.denomination prohibits you to. I am currently contacting state and local officials as to wether or not atheists can marry themselves or even have an atheist marry them. It appears becoming a officially recognised officiate requires you to be an officially recognized religion/denomination/reliogous society. No one knows what that means…

  • aaron odonahue

    Hi, I am Aaron O’Donahue. I am an Atheist who would like to marry other atheists or let atheists know it is legal for them to marry themselves under the statutes 765.16 and 765.17 of Wisconsin State Law. To do so, I need to know the following 3 definitions and the answers to the 3 questions that follow them:

    1.) “Religious Society.” Example: Is an atheist, or free thinker part of a religious society?
    2.) “Church.” Example: Is an atheist or free thinker part of a church?
    3.) “Denomination.” Example: Is atheism, spirituality, free thinking, or agnosticism a denomination?

    4.) Also, I’d like to know if the “First Church of Atheism” Website that I have become ordained by is officially recognized by the state of Wisconsin as a religion?5.) I’d also like to know if by being ordained there if I can marry people and have the marriages legal?6.) If an atheist couple can marry themselves if they feel their “denomination” prohibits them from having someone else marry them?

    If you would get back to me as soon as possible you may call 706-593-2686 or mail me at 206 Vine St. Eau Claire WI 54703.

    Thank You,
    -Aaron O’Donahue

  • exe

    There is no provision for the individuals to officiate at their own marriage
    if no provision, should be ok for not?

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