Monday, July 14, 2014
Seventh Circuit Finds Indiana's Clergy-Only Marriage Solemnization Statute Violates the First Amendment
In its 11 page opinion today in Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, a panel of the Seventh Circuit has held Indiana Code §31-11-6-1 violates the First Amendment. The provision specifies who can solemnize a marriage and includes "religious officials designated by religious groups but omits equivalent officials of secular groups such as humanist societies." The plaintiffs, a humanist group and a leader of the group deemed a "secular celebrant," were not allowed to solemnize a marriage unless they obtained clergy credentials or "called themselves a religion."
Judge Easterbrook, writing for the unanimous panel, stated that it is unconstitutional to make distinctions between "religious and secular beliefs that hold the same place in adherents’ lives," citing the well known conscientous objector cases of Welsh and Seeger, as well as Torasco v. Watkins, and the Seventh Circuit precedent regarding accommodations for atheists in prison. There is not, Easterbrook wrote, an "ability to favor religions over non-‐‑theistic groups that have moral stances that are equivalent to theistic ones except for non-‐‑belief in God or unwillingness to call themselves religions."
As for Indiana's argument that the humanists were not actually being excluded from solemnizing marriages under the statute, the court had this to say:
Adherents to faiths with clergy can be married in two steps: first they obtain a license, Ind. Code §31-11-4-1, and then they have the marriage solemnized by a priest or equivalent person in the list in §31-11-6-1. (Plaintiffs do not challenge the licensure statute, because religion is irrelevant to that procedure.) Humanists could achieve the same result in three steps: first get a license, then have a humanist celebrant perform a public ceremony appropriate to their beliefs, and finally have a clerk of court or similar functionary solemnize the marriage. That’s true enough—but it just restates the discrimination of which plaintiffs complain. Lutherans can solemnize their marriage in public ceremonies conducted by people who share their fundamental beliefs; humanists can’t. Humanists’ ability to carry out a sham ceremony, with the real business done in a back office, does not address the injury of which plaintiffs complain.
Interestingly, the opinion also had something to say about the equal protection problems of the statutory scheme, noting that the distinctions between religions that have clergy and those that do not as well as "the state’s willingness to recognize marriages performed by hypocrites," violate the Equal Protection Clause:
It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a “religion.” It is absurd to give the Church of Satan, whose high priestess avows that her powers derive from having sex with Satan, and the Universal Life Church, which sells credentials to anyone with a credit card, a preferred position over Buddhists, who emphasize love and peace. A marriage solemnized by a self-declared hypocrite would leave a sour taste in the 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 court found Indiana's reliance on the Supreme Court's most recent Establishment Clause decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway inapposite, easily distinguishing Galloway as not being about the regulation of private conduct as the Indiana solemnization statute was.
The decision could pave the way for other First Amendment challenges to solemnization statutes that provide a special status for religious clergy.