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Secular Wedding Ceremonies (1999)

by Bill Schultz

The question arises, from time to time, about what nontheists can do if they want something more elaborate than a courthouse wedding, performed by some clerk, but they don't want to go through anything which looks like its a "church wedding." Well, there is an alternative, but it usually takes a great deal of work by the main participants. In essence, you can design your own wedding ceremony.

The actual legal requirements for a wedding vary from place to place, but they are usually pretty minimal. In general, they amount to:

  • Obtaining a governmental "marriage license" valid in the jurisdiction where the ceremony will be performed;
  • Having an "authorized person" perform the ceremony; and
  • Returning the "necessary documentation" to the licensing government.

So, other than pure paperwork, the only requirement that must be met is that an "authorized person" has to perform the wedding ceremony. The question of who is, and who is not, an "authorized person," can be a matter of some variation from place to place. And, if the government where you are located is in some way biased in favor of some particular religious group, they may have made it all but impossible to get legally married without an official of that religious group (or of SOME religious group) officiating at the wedding.

Don't forget, though, that you can "take your business elsewhere" if the local government is biased against you. Many people live within an hour's ride of some other jurisdiction with different laws about marriage. If you get stonewalled by your local authorities, have your wedding someplace else!

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In the United States, the government is constitutionally required to be secular, so most states have various alternatives to religious weddings. The key here is to find one that is both legal and meets your own requirements. If the only legal alternative is to show up at a courthouse and have a clerk marry you, then you may wish to explore the third option: the "dual ceremony." Here, you arrange to be married by the clerk (say, in the morning) and have your own secular wedding celebration (say, in the afternoon) on the same day. Or, even on different days, if that is the only way you can work things out.

Hopefully, you won't need to go to such extremes! Most places should have an option for a Humanist or other nonreligious ceremony to count as a legal wedding. (If not, please tell me about it!) There are several possible options that may or may not be legal in your particular jurisdiction (you have to check out the legality yourself):

  • A Humanist Celebrant may be able to perform the ceremony;
  • A "priestess" or "priest" from the pagan community may be willing and able to perform some ceremony acceptable to you;
  • A "minister" of the Universal Life Church (who can be anybody who pays the required fee for a certificate, and possibly fill out some additional paperwork for the government) may be able to perform the ceremony;
  • Anybody with a "Notary Public" license may be able to perform the ceremony;
  • Some other nonreligious person may be able to perform the ceremony, depending upon exactly who is "authorized" in the jurisdiction where the wedding will occur; or, finally
  • You may be able to perform your own wedding ceremony, without a third-party officiating (this is legal in at least one US state).

Humanists have been actively creating alternatives to religious ceremonies for a long time. In the United States, the American Humanist Association has a group of licensed "Humanist Celebrants" who may legally perform weddings in most jurisdictions (they are technically associated with the Quakers; the licensing body is the "Humanist Society of Friends"). A "Humanist Celebrant" who is properly licensed for the jurisdiction in which the wedding will occur will generally be able to handle most of the paperwork for you and advise you on whatever you need to do on your own. Also, since there are no legal requirements for the ceremony itself (you can do whatever you wish for the actual wedding; the only thing that really matters is returning the paperwork, properly filled out), most "Humanist Celebrants" will go along with most anything you wish in terms of a ceremony to be performed in front of your friends and families. If you are interested in this option, please check out the directory of Humanist Celebrants.

The modern pagan movement is extremely noncreedal (nondogmatic), and so if pagans are authorized to perform wedding ceremonies in your jurisdiction, you may wish to include them in your search for a celebrant. Many pagans who are authorized to perform pagan ceremonies will also gladly perform secular ceremonies as well. One pagan "priestess" recommended The Witches' Voice as a good web site for you to use to find pagans locally. A worldwide contact list of pagans is available. Not all (and maybe not any) will be properly licensed to perform weddings in your jurisdiction, so some caution should be exercised when soliciting a celebrant from this (or any other "nontraditional") community.

The Universal Life Church will license anybody as a minister so long as they send in the required fee for their certificate. (They do other things, too, like granting Doctor of Divinity degrees; see their web site.) This option is legal in many jurisdictions, but some governments have created special rules invalidating any minister credentials issued by the Universal Life Church, or imposing extra requirements on any of its ministers who wish to perform wedding ceremonies (not all of which are necessarily bad things, as you do want somebody who meets at least a few basic requirements, like they are competent to complete the paperwork for you and won't stammer all through the ceremony). I have it on good authority from a pagan "priestess" in Virginia that, after a long court battle, the State of Virginia succeeded in denying "minister" credentials to Universal Life Church ministers. But where it is legal and convenient to do so, you could actually choose just about anybody to perform your ceremony, so long as they are willing to go through the motions of obtaining a certificate and meeting any state-imposed requirements. But again, caution should be exercised to ensure that your wedding ceremony as it is performed is fully legal under the requirements of your particular jurisdiction.

A "Notary Public" is a person who is authorized to certify that some particular document was actually signed by the person whose signature is written there. Some documents are traditionally "notarized," like grant deeds and other transfers of property of some significant value. Usually, the government will license a person as a "Notary Public" and will create requirements for record keeping and so forth for that person. In some jurisdictions, notaries are allowed to perform weddings. Since almost anybody can be licensed as a notary, one option in jurisdictions that allow notaries to perform weddings is for you to recruit anybody you wish to officiate at your wedding and pay them to get a license as a "Notary Public" in your jurisdiction (which may have a residency requirement, so don't choose somebody who lives far away from where you intend to get married; its the jurisdiction where the wedding will occur that counts).

There may be many other options, depending upon the particular jurisdiction where you intend to hold the wedding ceremony. Its not unusual for judges to have the authority to marry people, and if you happen to know a judge who won't balk at whatever you want to do for your wedding, that might be a viable option. Some jurisdictions authorize "any elected official" to perform wedding ceremonies. Still others might have special licenses your officiant can obtain simply for the purpose of performing your wedding. Finally, at least one state (Kansas) has special provisions for "self-performed" wedding ceremonies, allowing you to more-or-less just get up and say your own wedding in any format that is acceptable to you.

If you hear of other options that are substantially different from what I have described herein, please send me a message describing these different options and I will try to add them to this page at some point in time.

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As you should have gleaned from the above, there are only two really hard things you need to do for you to have a beautiful secular wedding ceremony:

  • Find the right "authorized person" to officiate; and
  • Design the ceremony, which must be agreed to by said "authorized person."

Let me reiterate, there are virtually no requirements imposed by law for the content of the wedding ceremony in the United States. Unfortunately, that leaves you with a totally blank piece of paper as a starting point for your own wedding ceremony. If you want to have the ceremony in the buff at a legal nude beach, nobody would try to stop you, so long as you get the proper permits for the use of public facilities. If you watch the television news over a period of several years, people have gotten married in scuba gear at the bottom of swimming pools and lakes, while skydiving, and in many other outrageous situations, even beyond description.

A wedding ceremony is usually like a play, with a written script and a set of actors to perform the various parts. You should thus choose an officiant who will perform well under the pressure of the situation. Priests and ministers practice these ceremonies over and over so that they are all but second nature to them.

Most celebrants will be able to suggest some sort of starting point for your wedding ceremony. Many will have some scripts available from previous ceremonies they have performed for you to use as suggestions. But by and large, every couple (even for "traditional" wedding ceremonies) will need to create and agree on (between themselves and their celebrant) the particular script to be used for their special ceremony.

You are the producers of your own wedding. And you get to choose any and all of the director(s), playwright(s), and other actors, although you will usually initially choose to start writing (or at least designing) the ceremony yourselves. You are limited only by your own imaginations and your budget. Then, on your wedding day, you also have to be the lead actor and lead actress. Think about that a while, and then realize why you might very well wish to have your officiant do the directing too, instead of just acting out the part. But it is your wedding day, no matter what, so be sure to have fun while you get married!

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Here are some web sites for you to check out:

Please feel free to send me any suggestions you might have for additional links or other improvements to this page.


The text of this essay is Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2007, by William A. Schultz. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author.

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