By Mathew Goldstein
Maryland law grants a clerk of court, a deputy clerk of court designated by the county administrative judge for the county circuit court, or a judge, the authority to perform state recognized weddings. Like most other states, Maryland law also gives religious institutions the same authority as the aforementioned judicial staff to perform weddings. Maryland law says that "any religious official of a body or order authorized by the rules and customs of that body or order to perform a marriage ceremony" has this civic authority.
Non-religious couples who prefer to have a single wedding ceremony, but do not want that ceremony to be held at their local court building, have several options. Secularist groups can nevertheless arrange to have themselves designated as a religious organization with the state of Maryland to obtain for their members the authority to perform a state recognized wedding. There are also several organizations that grant divinity degrees for a fee. The divinity degree confers on the degree holder the authority to perform an official wedding on behalf of the church issuing the degree and they probably also confer a good income for the people issuing the dubious degrees.
Some of the people who are inconvenienced by the biased wedding laws make an effort to change them. Some years ago a bill was submitted in the Maryland General Assembly to give non-religious organizations the authority to designate people to perform weddings. The bill was quickly defeated before it had a chance to get out of committee after a group of lawyers and judges that advises the legislature criticized the bill. They complained that allowing non-religious groups to nominate people to officiate weddings on similar terms as religious groups would result in too many wedding officiants failing to follow through and submit the completed forms.
Nevertheless, slowly, states are loosening their marriage laws to allow people who are not government employees and not religiously affiliated to officiate weddings. The elected lawmakers of the District of Columbia enacted a law in 2013 granting non-religious individuals "civic celebrant" authority to officiate weddings. Apparently, the non-religious folks across the Maryland D.C. line can be trusted to promptly submit the completed forms after the wedding ceremony is completed.
The Center for Inquiry, following failures to challenge the restriction on who can officiate weddings in the Illinois legislature, went to court. On January 4, a U.S. District Judge ruled that “marriages solemnized by Center for Inquiry secular celebrants are valid” and ruled out any efforts to preclude secular celebrants from solemnizing marriages. In 2014 the Center for Inquiry won a similar battle in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit over the failure of Indiana law to grant non-religious individuals the same privilege to officiate weddings as religious individuals. At a rate of one state every year or two there could be wedding officiant equality in all of the states before the start of the twenty second century.
Maryland should be one of the early states. We should not have to wait for a judge's order, or fifty more years, for the General Assembly to change this law.