Questions About a Non-Theistic Wedding June 28, 2010

Questions About a Non-Theistic Wedding

I’m getting some wonderful wedding vows sent to me from a lot of atheists. I’ll post those soon.

On a related note, one reader has a couple questions about his upcoming wedding that some of you may be able to help with:

… we live in the Pittsburgh area and while we’ve found a banquet hall to hold our reception we’ve run into difficulties finding an appropriate ceremony venue. We were hoping that someone on your site might have some suggestions on where we could look. We’re looking for an indoors venue that feels formal.

Couple of caveats:

We tried the UU church in the area. It was gorgeous but our religious families were very upset at what they felt was a mockery of a “real” church. Being as we can have a secular wedding elsewhere without offense, there wasn’t any reason to cause a division.

Neither of us would mind having the ceremony in a Christian (or otherwise) church if we could just use the building. I think this would be especially cool since it would show real tolerance on everyone’s part. Unfortunately we don’t know of any churches that don’t insist on doing things their way.

We are planning on having my friend officiate the ceremony if that matters. This is an interesting story in itself actually. After researching online ordination by something like Universal Life Ministries we found that such marriages are sometimes ruled non-binding. A trip to the courthouse to speak to the dept that issues marriage license didn’t help; they refuse to say whether or not the marriage would be valid. The only legal solution we could come up with that didn’t require spending a lot on a lawyer was to just go to a Justice of Peace the day before.

Anyone have ideas about location?

And what are the rules about who can officiate the wedding? Are Pennsylvania’s rules the same as everywhere else?

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  • Bob

    WHO is ruling ULC marriages non-binding? (I’m curious, because I’m an ordained minister in the ULC, and have officiated for friends who prefer a non-theistic ceremony.)

  • Grimalkin

    When my husband and I get married, we didn’t know what officiants were yet. I don’t know if things are different in the US, but looking up local or even national Atheist organizations might give a list of officiants by area.

    In any case, we did the same thing. We were legally married at our city hall a couple days before the actual wedding. Part of the reason is that we wanted the wedding to take place in the US (where most of my family is), but didn’t want to deal with the legal issues of getting married in a place other than our country of residence.

    So we did the city hall thing, which really wasn’t all that bad (except for the lady conducting the ceremony saying that marriage is a “sacred bond between a man and a woman” despite the fact that homo-marriage has been legal here for a while. It was all I could do not to bitch-slap the woman). Then we went down to the US and had a three-day-long party that included one day of wearing a pretty dress and exchanging vows.

    It worked out really well. Best of all, we just use my ancestral house as the location, so the budget for the entire wedding was under $1000 (most of which was taken up by my dress, legal fees for the marriage certificate, and catering).

  • Mike

    Pennsylvania has special rules for “self-officiated” ceremonies because of the Quaker population. If I remember correctly, you can hold the ceremony any way you want, and it’s binding so long as you have the proper number of witnesses. Don’t quote me on that, though — not a lawyer.

    When my wife and I got married, we called around to JPs trying to find one who would marry us somewhere other than their office. In the end, the only person we could find who was willing to do it was the mayor.

    We elected for an outdoor wedding at a local park, as well. Not sure if that would work in your situation!


  • When my wife and I were married in Albany, we used the gorgeous Washington Park. In Pittsburgh, the gorgeous Mellon Park (upper side), or parts of Frick or Schenley. If you prefer indoors, there’s always Phipps Conservatory.

    The real question is this: where do you want to hold your wedding? Top of Mount Washington? As part of where you’re holding your reception, maybe?

    As for PAs rules on officiants, I think they have a JP system (I haven’t checked), so that it’s really just a matter of going to the court-house. Not positive, though. That’s an easily answered Internet question.

  • Elga

    Have you looked into Phipps Conservatory? They have some beautiful indoor spaces available for wedding ceremonies. Also, the Carnegie museum rents out space for special events (a friend had her wedding reception there and it was amazing!)
    Oh, and if either of you happen to be Pitt grads, Heinz chapel is non-denominational. You can check and see if they can also accommodate non-Theistic ceremonies.

  • tim

    We are planning on having my friend officiate the ceremony if that matters.

    Is this friend allowed to perform marriages within that state? That should be really easy to find out.

    I’ve been to weddings in which the individual performing the ceremony could not legally execute the wedding. However, the two that were getting married were ‘technically’ married as they went to a courthouse to file the paperwork and it was witnessed by a judge. The wedding is just a ceremony. All the state cares about is the paperwork.

  • A

    I’m bothered by the part where the person says the people in the marriage license department refuse to help answer questions about validity. I used to work in an office that handled marriage licenses. (I didn’t work in PA, and the marriage laws do vary state by state.) In my state, much to the chagrin of some of my xtian former coworkers, the ULC marriages are absolutely recognized. (So are Dudeism marriages! That really pissed ’em off!) And as much as they didn’t want to tell people about the validity of those marriages, they were obliged to do so by the first “rule” of the office: assist the customer as best you can. So if the first clerk(s) you encounter won’t answer the questions about validity, do what every municipal worker hates most: ask for their supervisor. And if that doesn’t work, go farther up the chain of command. You’ll get answers!

  • andrew

    My dream is to get married in a natural history museum under a huge dinosaur.

  • Luc

    Pennsylvania has this amazing thing called a “self-uniting” marriage license. It has its roots in allowing the clergy-free Quakers to get married, but then a 1st Amendment lawsuit made it available to everyone. Hooray! You can marry yourself; no officiant necessary.

  • Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Oakland has rooms of various sizes for your ceremony and/or reception. It is an often overlooked, dramatic building. There is also a gazebo by a pond in South Park that lots of people use as a wedding site.

  • Claudia

    What approximate dates do you want to get married? If you’re planning spring or summer and weather is expected to be good in those dates, why not try an outdoor wedding in a natural setting? Arranging for big tents in case the weather doesn’t hold would be good. Flowers, posts and nice fabrics could make for a beautiful setting.

  • beckster

    We were married at the small chapel on campus at the local university. There was a cross and an organ, but since it was for use by anyone we were able to do what we wanted for the ceremony. I am sure there are places at the public parks and public universities that you could rent out.

  • benjdm

    Have the wedding wherever you’re having the reception. Twofer!

  • Stephanie

    In Pennsylvania, you can use a self-uniting marriage license, meaning you can marry yourselves, no officiant necessary. All you need are two witnesses to sign the license. That’s how my husband and I got married and it was awesome.

    Also, I second the Phipps recommendation. One of the most beautiful locations in Pittsburgh. You might also consider Mount Washington, overlooking downtown.

  • gabeln

    When I got married to my wife, we each wanted one thing out of the cermony; I wanted it be non-theistic and she wanted it to be on a beach in Costa Rica (her home country). I live in PA and had been to a Quaker wedding once. It was very beautiful; the couple sat in front of eachother, in front of all of their friends and family. Anytime that someone felt moved to speak, they would stand up and tell a story about one or both of the people getting married, or give wishes or prayers. There was no “officiant” but the groom had chosen one of his former teachers to explain the format and then sit down. We decided on a ceremony like that. It was perfect, she had a few religious family members, from different backgrounds, and being able to get up and speak from their perspectives meant alot to them; I called it a BYOG ceremony. Costa Rica’s laws didn’t care who officiated, there just needed to be a lawyer present for us to sign papers. But as I was getting the PA paperwork ready, I learned that there is a special self-uniting marriages avaliable in the state because of the Quaker background. Additionally, I remember that a judge ruled in Allegheny county in 2007 that they should be made avaliable for secular couples. I am sorry that I do not know the ins and outs, but maybe that is a direction to look in.

    -edit: I just noticed the post above mentioned my point while I was being long-winded.

  • Courtney

    Neither of us would mind having the ceremony in a Christian (or otherwise) church if we could just use the building. I think this would be especially cool since it would show real tolerance on everyone’s part. Unfortunately we don’t know of any churches that don’t insist on doing things their way.

    I think you just summed up way more than just a difficulty with wedding venues.

  • maddogdelta

    I know one couple who got married at a skeptics convention…

    // Takes off “captain obvious” suit, returns to being normal non entity…

  • siveambrai

    Ok. Either this is my friend or there are two couples in the Pittsburgh area having the same problem. Assuming this is my friend, I don’t believe Heinz Chapel is allowed because neither is a graduate of Pitt. In addition, I know they would like to avoid the JoP solution because they wanted to involve their friends in the ceremony and the deeply religious family members generally frown upon state marriages.

  • Doesn’t Pittsburgh have a river? Where there are rivers there are picturesque lakes too. Get married on a boat.

  • TXatheist

    We tried the UU church in the area. It was gorgeous but our religious families were very upset at what they felt was a mockery of a “real” church.
    Wow, you are more kind than I am because if someone told me UU wasn’t a real church I’d tell them off. We have UU christians and UU christian meetings in our UU church and those are the “real” christians, not the ones that perpetuate the supernatural nonsense in the bible.

  • lyric

    You might consider someplace like a botanical gardens. I volunteer at a zoo/botanical gardens and our facility hosts a number of weddings. Both indoor and outdoor facilities are available.

    I’ve also been to weddings hosted in the reception hall. As a guest, I loved it — no driving around to find the reception.

    I don’t know about PA, but I believe in some states a religious officiant must be ordained with a “regularly established church or congregation”… meaning they must be ordained/affiliated with a specific church in the state, rather than a free-floating, unaffiliated ordination.

    Personally, I had an outdoor wedding solemnized by a notary. I’m not sure what my (very religious) family thought, but then again, it was my wedding, not theirs.

  • mike

    As a newly wed (1 year & 1 month) I have some advice. Your wedding is your day. Ultimately, make sure you are pleased with the location is the most important thing. If the UU church makes you happy, who cares what your family thinks. You didn’t tell them where to get married, so why should they tell you? The only family that should have a say are parents who are paying for the wedding. But anyone who isn’t paying for the wedding is of no consequence to your choice of location. If they don’t respect you enough to respect your choice, they why do you want to change your day for them?

    Make yourself happy, you will never regret it.

  • Don Rose

    We had our wedding in my in-laws’ yard. It was really nice. We also only invited a small portion of the guests to the ceremony, and had everyone else meet at the reception. Our justice of the peace did a great job, and left out all religion, as we requested. It’s YOUR wedding, do it in a way that’s right for you. Everyone else should respect your wishes. If they don’t, then it’s their problem.

  • flatlander100

    My wife and I were married by a Justice of the Peace in Louisiana 29 years ago. Might work for you.

    Why not have the wedding in the same place, same date, as the reception? Save you travelling from the wedding site to the reception site. Save time, save gas, save hassles and you know the site is available. You’ve already booked it.

  • seashell

    Sometimes universities that were religious by tradition have a chapel that rents out space. My friend was married in our college chapel but the ceremony was done by her pastor – the university didn’t care about the details of the ceremony.

  • Bob

    See if you can rent the Buhl Planetarium for the ceremony. Get married under the stars, with a sunrise to greet you as a newly-wed couple.

    (I used to work at Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, and weddings were occasionally held there.)

  • cj

    There’s some great suggestions above. So, as for the venue I’ll just say that a lot of those would be great places for you to concider.

    if you’re still looking for a photographer, and would like to work with someone with someone with similar beliefs, my wife and I are wedding photographers in Pittsburgh. I’ll post an email address below that I use for a lot of ‘spam type’ stuff. Feel free to contact me to talk about your wedding plans!

    Good luck either way! And congratulations!


    drmr_cj @ (just remove the spaces) 🙂

  • Erdbeere

    When my husband and I got married, city hall gave us the option of having the Justice of the Peace show up to a location of our choice for a small fee. You might want to check into whether that’s an option for you. We ended up getting married in a gorgeous public park, and the JotP delivered a wonderful short ceremony for us.

    I also like the idea of having the wedding in the same place as the reception. Much less of a hassle for everyone that way, no need to change venues.

    Whatever you decide, congratulations to you, and I hope your wedding turns out beautiful.

  • Alexis

    The Center for Inquiry has a Pittsburgh community. I understand that they have helped couples with similar situations.

  • BigBillK

    As for venue, I think the suggestions of Phipps Conservatory or the Carnegie Museums (which include the Warhol and the Carnegie Science Center) are excellent choices. And as one poster suggested, especially if cost is an issue, using the reception hall is also an option.

    Stephanie is correct that Pennsylvania has a self-uniting provision in their marriage laws. What you need to do is to obtain a self-uniting marriage certificate from the county Clerk of Courts or Prothonotary – whichever office you apply for a marriage license. If you are in Allegheny County, the person in charge of that function (I’m not really sure of her title) is Valerie McDonald Roberts and she is a religious nut-case and is very anti-freethinker. (She also appears on a local TV show where she has a history of making discriminatory comments about and offensive to non-believers.) Several years ago, (2006 I believe) she refused to issue a self-uniting marriage certificate to a couple until the ACLU got involved and filed a court action. I am familiar with that case because I participated in that couple’s service.

    As for the legality of having your friend performing the service, that is not a problem. Anybody can perform a ceremony. However, signing the marriage license as an agent of the state would most likely not be legal unless they have a regular congregation.

    If you want further information or have questions, contact me at

  • L. Foster

    My husband and I got married at the local Renaissance Faire at which we’d met 3 years previous. My mom even wore garb and got a real kick out of it.

  • stephanie

    Museums are awesome for weddings, and often the reception can be held there as well.

    FWIW I’m one of those online-ordained officiants. The government recognizes that form of ordination in some states but not others. In the case of a family member from out of state, I didn’t want to chance it so I just went down to City Hall and got deputized for a day. Many places will allow you to do that, so you might check locally where the marriage licenses are issued.

  • Alexis

    I’ve been to two non-theistic weddings in the Pittsburgh area. Both were officiated by a judge at the reception hall. One was in Greensburg at the Lakeview Restaurant and the other was at in Pittsburgh’s west end at James Center I’m sure that a web search for restaurants and reception halls would turn up many more options.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    I live in Pennsylvania, and my spouse and I were married by ourselves ten years ago in a so-called Quaker wedding.

    The way it works is this: You go to the municipal office that issues marriage licenses, and you tell them that you want a “self-uniting” or “Quaker” license. It’s basically the same form, but with no place for an officiant.

    To get married, then, you, your spouse, and your witnesses (two are required) fill out the form and sign it, and then you return the form to the municipal office. Couldn’t be simpler.

    My wife and I had a nice big wedding ceremony with an officiant and reception and everything. (She’s religious, I’m not, and we had a nice ceremony that respected both our beliefs). But we needed to get legally married some months before, so she could get access to my health insurance. So we invited our Maid of Honor and Best Man (and their partners) out to dinner, and got ourselves married right there at the table.

    It’s great that Pennsylvania offers this, and I think more states should. If you’re grown-up enough to get married and be out on your own, why do you need an officiant?

  • TheLoneIguana

    My wife and I got married in a nice garden area of a hotel on the California coast- in what Rev. Lovejoy would call “the cheap showiness of nature.”
    The lady that performed the ceremony worked at a funky little local used bookstore.

  • Kiera

    My husband and I had our wedding ceremony in the same place our reception was, a barn-turned wedding and brunch place.

    We are in pennsylvania and as the commenter above has said, PA has a nifty little alternate marriage license that is called a “self uniting” marriage license. It means we essentially married ourselves, so even though my husband’s aunt performed the ceremony we technically didn’t need her at all for the paperwork. All we needed was our signatures and two witnesses (our best man and maid of honor performed this duty).

  • OP Letter Writer

    Thanks for all the feedback! It feels good to see a community that you respect come together to help out.

    On whats been said so far:
    ULC: In the websites above about self-uniting marriages it points out a 2007 case where a judge said that since ULC ministers don’t have a congregation they don’t count.

    Self-Uniting: When we went to the marriage clerk in our county they made it clear that self-uniting had been removed from our county at least. It was about the only clear answer we could get. There was a big sign hanging in the office that said they wouldn’t answer legal questions and apparently asking “Is this person ok?” was being considered a legal question. A google search on the subject seems to reveal that self-uniting is very hit or miss in PA.

    UU: Neither of us are members, we just wanted to use the building (The Pittsburgh branch is very pretty.)So when the “checkbook” voted no it definitely wasn’t worth a fight.

    Using the same place as the reception: That’s the current plan. While there isn’t anything wrong with this; I accept that I’ve been culturally engineered enough to feel that weddings are “suppose” to be in more formal settings. As a rationalist if this feeling were causing me harm I’d just ignore it, but its my wedding and if I’ll feel better somewhere else why not try to find it.

  • LeAnne

    Museums or outdoor locations!

  • My wife and I were married in a civil ceremony at city hall. It was just immediate family, completely non-religious, and very nice all around. We had a larger reception/dinner type thing the following day at a nearby hotel.

    I’m surprised you’re having so much trouble finding venues – general-purpose halls are very common in the greater Toronto area. Even religious weddings typically have their receptions held in them. Many of my friends have also held non-religious civil ceremonies in the same types of places.

  • lyric

    As far as the legalities of ULC officiants, there’s apparently a case that spent several years in the court system:

    Unless you’re in the county in question (or game for a long drawn-out court battle), you might consider having a county clerk or JP co-officiate with your friend.

    @Bob, if you’re officiating at weddings, I’d suggest contacting a lawyer in your state to make certain you’re satisfying the legal niceties.

  • Heidi

    @OP: I’m just curious as to why you feel that a banquet hall is formal enough for the reception but not for the ceremony?

    I had a hotel wedding and reception with a JP (in Massachusetts). But I love the museum and planetarium ideas. And I just Googled for pictures of the Phipps Conservatory. That place is gorgeous!

    Looks like you’ve got a lot of places to choose from. Google “wedding venues pittsburgh pa.” I got a huge list of places. Good luck, and congratulations!

  • cj

    I’ve shot wedding’s at both & both are great locations.

    Also, the George Washington Hotel in Washington, PA is a beautiful location where they have a huge room that is great for the ceremony, a beautiful foyer that can be used for cocktail hours, and then a really awesome reception room. Definitely worth checking out that venue!

  • BigBillK

    About the self-uniting marriage issue in Allegheny County. Contact the local ACLU office in Pittsburgh and see if McDonald-Roberts is allowed to get away with this. She got beat in court once before on this. I don’t believe that she can arbitrarily deny your application. I could be wrong, though, so you really need to check with Vic Walczak and the ACLU.

  • Alexis

    Since the self uniting license is a state law, I don’t think that the county can (legally) deny you this. I read a news article about a case in State College a couple years ago where the county official said “this is only for Quakers”, but the ACLU sued, and it was shown that the self uniting license is available for all marriages in the state.

  • Though it won’t be for a long while yet, my boyfriend and I are having a non-theistic wedding and have planned to first get married legally in a court house/town hall – that allows us to do whatever the heck we want with the actual ceremony itself. Our good friend plans to officiate and we’re saving to hopefully hold it at a local castle as it’s a themed wedding.

    If getting just getting legally married on paper, completely separate from the ceremony, is an option for you and wouldn’t bother you, it might help make things easier.

  • Reckless

    I know a handful of couples who have gotten married outdoors, or in locations that were significant to them and their relationship (ex: the park where they picnicked on their first date).

  • Sue D. Nymme

    Dear OP:

    As far as I know, there’s no requirement that you reside in the county where you get the application and file the license. When I got married, we lived in the Selinsgrove area, but I got the application (and filed it) at the Harrisburg office, simply because that was more convenient for me (because of where I was working at the time, I could just go there on my lunch hour).

    So you can either contact your local ACLU and get them to bug the county clerk, or you can go to another county. Or do both.

  • I’d have to agree with doing the courthouse thing before hand, giving you the freedom to have the ceremony you truly want. My wife and I are coming up on our 2nd anniversary in a few weeks, and we often mention how we really wish we’d done that ourselves. During the whole planning process for the wedding, we both agreed we wanted an entirely non-religious ceremony, and contacted a service that would supposedly put us in touch with an officiant that would be willing to perform a non-theistic service. In a weird twist, we were contacted by the same baptist minister that her sister used the year previous, but he insisted he’d do things the way we wanted. We were both a bit skeptical at first, but he reassured us that it was our day, and and that he would be happy to do it in a completely secular fashion since that was our wish. We crafted the flow of the ceremony with him over a few meetings, and all seemed well. During the actual ceremony, however, he threw in several references to God’s love and holy unions and the whole nine. We were both furious afterward, but let it slide on the day. It was still a beautiful wedding in a fantastic (and cheap!) banquet hall, and we were both completely satisfied otherwise, but it will always stand out as a little less perfect, since we were basically snowed by this preacher.

  • Anne

    Why not outdoors? Nature makes the best backdrop for a wedding ceremony IMO.

    But if you are set on getting married indoors then I would look for an historic building or perhaps an art museum. Or fraternal organizations such as the Elks often have rentals but these, in my experience, tend to be bland and depressing.

    It might be worth hiring a wedding consultant to find a venue you like.

  • JB Tait

    I officiated at a lovely wedding in the Phipps Conservatory.

    They have several venues depending on the size of your event, and they have reception areas too.

    In some of the rooms, no alcohol is allowed so we adapted the Martian water sharing ritual. The religious family members didn’t realize it wasn’t the usual wine they had come to expect, nor did they identify the source of the words.

  • JB Tait

    I was informed by an official that in Pennsylvania, you are entitled to conduct a marriage if the couple has obtained a valid licence and recognizes you as having the authority within their “church,” to do so, and in fact, self-marriage was allowed (for the Amish)up until recently.
    I have verified that the ULC credentials are valid, and they will even give you a discount at religious supplies shops and book stores.

  • JB Tait

    Correction: I mistyped Amish when I meant Quakers. Plain Quakers are similar in manner and lifestyle, but unrelated to the Amish.

  • Stephen

    Be weary of using the Universal Life Church online ordination service. Many states do not accept that specific organization due to the many fraudulent officiators operating under their guise.

    I just went through this whole ordeal myself a little over three weeks ago. It turned out to not be as big an issue as we had anticipated. We had our best friend marry us as well and we had him ordained under Dudeism as a Dudeist Priest (from the movie the Big Lebowski). The county clerk did not object and in the end signed off on the marriage certificate giving it full legal status.

    We also had the ceremony in the same building as the reception. We were fortunate to have it separated by floors with the ceremony downstairs in one banquet room and the reception upstairs in the main banquet room.

    Everything about the ceremony was secular and we didn’t hear a single objection from anyone out the 200 or so that were there.

    A couple of points of interest. We live in Nashville, the buckle of the bible belt. So if we can pull it off here I’m confident you’ll be able to get through up there. Our “Priest” used an ancient bound book of “A History of the United States” as his Bible-esque prop. He had hand written the entire ceremony and it was a mega hit.

  • Bob


    I do check – most counties in California simply require you be in good standing with your parent organization.

  • Haydn McLean

    The aforemnentioend information is correct. As a former pastor, now a Quaker, a Quaker attorney told me that what needs to be requested in a PA courthouse is a “unite ourselves in marriage” license. This license, similar to the popular one, has no place for a clergy person to sign, but has a place for a witness to sign. This is because the couple marry each other–the clergy person does not marry them and there is no clergy acting as a stand-in for God. The history of this goes back several hundred years in English law. That’s why the present, common service has both elements: the couple marry each other (vows) but has kept the presiding clergy (who pronounces husband and wife). Questions?

  • I’m not aware of any problems in any of the states.  The only times it comes up is when some county clerk makes an independent decision to ‘disallow’ the ordinations.  It’s ridiculous. Performing a wedding ceremony is, in a sense, a clerical job.  It doesn’t require special information (other than some basics about ceremonies), so other than for money purposes, I don’t see any need for registration.

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