Case Closed—CFI Wins Right for Secular Celebrants in Michigan

Paul Fidalgo

Secular celebrants are now permitted to officiate and solemnize marriages in Michigan, after state’s attorney general Dana Nessel reversed the government’s opposition to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Promising that the state considers CFI-trained and certified Secular Celebrants covered by existing statutes regarding marriage solemnization, the presiding federal court brought the case to a close.

In May 2018, CFI challenged Michigan’s marriage laws for unconstitutionally granting exclusive authority to solemnize marriages to religious ministers, while denying that authority to Secular Celebrants trained and certified by CFI. But the new state administration that took office in 2019 interpreted the existing statutes as expressly permitting CFI’s Secular Celebrants to perform marriages, leading the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan to dismiss the case as a settled matter.

What’s most important here is that Michigan couples with a secular worldview now have the same right as any religious couple: the right to have their weddings officiated and solemnized by someone who represents their deeply held beliefs, and not feel they must settle for a government-appointed functionary or someone with a mail-order ordination,” said Nick Little, CFI’s vice president and legal counsel. “One quarter of Michigan’s population is religiously unaffiliated, and for their state government to finally acknowledge that they, too, deserve equal marriage rights is a genuine victory.”

CFI won a landmark victory in 2014 challenging a similar law in Indiana, followed by a victory in Illinois in 2017. CFI also laid the groundwork for Secular Celebrant legislation enacted in Oregon in 2018. In 2019, a federal judge in Texas ruled against CFI in a troubling decision, questioning secular Americans’ ability to uphold the “solemnity” of a marriage ceremony. CFI has appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit.

CFI is particularly grateful to the law firm Schiff Hardin, LLP, and its attorneys J. Michael Showalter, Jessica Sprovtsoff, Ashley Thompson, and Stephan Wazny, assisted by former summer associate Heather Sanborn, who represented CFI and the other plaintiffs, CFI members Jennifer Beahan and Ed Brayton, pro bono.

We would have far preferred an affirmative decision from the court indicating that it was unconstitutional to deprive secular celebrants the right to solemnize marriages in Michigan as a future state administration could enter office and decide that secular couples are not guaranteed the same rights as those who are religious. However, we are excited that this administration has stood behind its secular citizens and ended this wrong-headed policy,” added Little. “We will continue to monitor this issue very closely, and if our community is diminished by state officials again, we will respond accordingly.”

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.


Secular celebrants are now permitted to officiate and solemnize marriages in Michigan, after state’s attorney general Dana Nessel reversed the government’s opposition to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Promising that the state considers CFI-trained and certified Secular Celebrants covered by existing statutes regarding marriage solemnization, the presiding federal court brought the …

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