CHICAGO (CN) - Indiana's restrictions on who may perform a marriage, allowing a high priestess of Satan to solemnize vows but not a Buddhist or humanist, are "absurd" and unconstitutional, the 7th Circuit ruled Monday.
Indiana law limits those who may solemnize a marriage in the state to a member of the clergy, a judge, a mayor, and a county or circuit court clerk.
The statute includes special mention of the Quakers, German Baptists, Bahai, Mormons and Muslims, permitting members of these religions to solemnize marriages even though they do not have an organized clergy.
An accommodation is not available, however, for equivalent officials of secular groups, or for all religions without clergy, such as Buddhism.
The Center of Inquiry, a humanist group that promotes ethical living without belief in a deity, challenged the statute as privileging some religions over others.
The center claims that it plays the same role in its members' lives as a religion but that the state's accommodation - to obtain clergy credentials, and call itself a religion - requires that it pretend to be something it is not.
Though a federal judge in Indianapolis denied the center an injunction, the 7th Circuit reversed Monday.
"Indiana not only discriminates against non-religious ethical groups such as humanists but also discriminates among religions, preferring those with a particular structure (having clergy) and particular beliefs (according a sacred status to marriage)," Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a three-judge panel (parentheses in original).
At oral argument, government attorneys acknowledged that a high priestess of the Church of Satan could officiate at an Indiana marriage, while Buddhists and humanists cannot.
"These examples, and the state's willingness to recognize marriages performed by hypocrites, show that the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment," Easterbrook said. "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."
Florida, Maine and South Carolina permit humanists to solemnize marriages by becoming notaries public, which the center agrees is an acceptable accommodation.
Four states avoid the problem by letting anyone solemnize a marriage, and another six allow couples to solemnize their own marriages.
"The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded with instructions to issue an injunction allowing certified secular humanist celebrants to solemnize marriages in Indiana - to do this with legal effect, and without risk of criminal penalties," the 11-page opinion concludes.