On Monday, March 24, 2014, I received a phone call from a woman seeking a humanist wedding officiant. It was a pleasant surprise and a good way to start the week. She told me about herself and about her fiancée, the story of where and how they met, and the life they wanted to share together as married partners. She let me know that they had obtained a marriage license in Fulton County, Georgia, and asked if I would agree to perform their wedding ceremony in scenic Piedmont Park, which is located in Midtown Atlanta.
I’d been certified as a humanist celebrant (HC) by the Humanist Society since April of last year, but this was to be the first wedding I would perform in this capacity. Needless to say, I was very excited and looked forward to the possibility of officiating their wedding. Humanist celebrants have the same legal weight and privileges as traditional clergy, rabbis, preachers, ministers, priests, and so forth, because we are members of the Humanist Society, an organization with 501(c)(3) status. Founded in 1939, it is now a part of the American Humanist Association.
Since I’m an atheist and a former clergywoman, this is a perfect way to reuse skills and expertise I developed as a minister in the United Methodist Church (UMC), but with a very different focus as the officiant of secular ceremonies for those who would rather leave gods and religion out of their special moments or milestones. In terms of legalities, each state has its own rules as to who can actually perform a wedding, but the Georgia Code states that, “any judge, including judges of state and federal courts of record in this state, city recorder, magistrate, minister, or other person of any religious society or sect authorized by the rules of such society to perform the marriage ceremony” can perform a wedding.
Before I agreed to perform their marriage ceremony, I called the Fulton County Probate Courthouse to make sure that I had a clear sense of what was required of me. I was informed that since the couple had already obtained the marriage license, I needed to verify and sign it at the time of the wedding. The signed license was to be returned to the Probate Court thereafter by either one of us; me or the couple, and at that time, the marriage certificate would be issued. As far as I knew, everything was a go, and we proceeded with the wedding later that day near the pond located in the center of Piedmont Park. After brief introductions, the wedding ceremony was performed with the declaration of intent, exchanging of vows and rings, and the pronouncement of marriage, all before a backdrop of the lovely Midtown skyline.
A few days after the wedding, the bride called to inform me that they were at the Fulton County Probate Courthouse where a clerk had a question about my credentials. After several minutes of troubling conversations with the clerk and her supervisor, I was told that Judge James Brock had refused to sign the certificate. “Who are you?” the clerk asked in reference to the “Humanist Celebrant”
title I was required to provide on the license. Obviously, the clerk and the rest of the Fulton County Probate Court had never heard the term, nor had they heard of the Humanist Society. After a few more phone calls, I was informed that it was Judge Brock’s final decision to deny the certificate and, hence, it was clear that the couple would have to be married again.
In the meantime, I contacted the American Humanist Association (AHA) and spoke with Rachael Berman, who coordinates the registration and applications for AHA’s celebrants. She told me that a similar situation had occurred in Virginia City a few months earlier with a court that had refused to recognize the credentials and authority of a humanist celebrant who had officiated a wedding. Hearing that the case had been resolved in favor of the HC gave me a little hope, but by then I was very aware that it could take weeks before the issue was resolved.
I called the bride and groom, who, of course, were the most affected by the judge’s denial of the wedding. I apologized for their inconvenience and we spoke about their options. They wanted to be sure that they were legally married, especially because the groom was leaving the country the next day on business. After some deliberation, they decided to get married again that same day at the Fulton County Probate Courthouse to be sure that all was in order. I totally understood their situation, and I offered to return the money they had paid me and wished them well. Meanwhile, I was in the middle of a great misunderstanding, not to mention having the awful feeling that my professional credibility had been openly questioned and rejected by people who didn’t even try to understand the facts of the situation. That same day, I called David Niose, who is head of the legal division at the AHA and a former AHA president. He was very helpful and offered to send me an affidavit verifying my credential with the Humanist Society via the AHA. If that didn’t work, he surmised, further action might be necessary.
Reflecting on everything that had happened, a familiar feeling came over me—the feeling of being stripped of my authority, which is something I faced a lot in my professional life when I was a pastor in the UMC. I could walk into the church wearing a clergy collar and a robe, and my being there would still be openly scrutinized. It wasn’t unusual, for example, for male and female members of the church to ask me the actual date and year I was ordained. Rarely, if ever, were my male counterparts scrutinized or denied the power of their authority, and especially not by women. My male colleagues could walk into a church building and thus into a pulpit without any question as to their status or authority with the UMC (or any church for that matter). This was a privilege I rarely enjoyed. It’s hard, it seems, for many people in the church to take the authority of a woman at her word, not to mention a black woman. These sexist and patriarchal views are in no way limited to religious people or religious institutions.
Finally, on June 4, 2014, I received a voicemail message from Judge Brock in which he informed me that, indeed, I was qualified to perform wedding ceremonies as a humanist celebrant in the State of Georgia. The Humanist Society’s legal status as a charitable organization had been confirmed by the Georgia Attorney General’s office. I returned Brock’s call and left a voicemail asking him for further assurances: first, that my credibility would not be questioned or dismissed in the future, and second, that no one else would have to go through what this couple had endured. A day or so later, the judge called me back and we were able to talk. Again, I expressed my concerns and he actually seemed to listen and even care about the nature of my concerns.
Unfortunately, this is often the kind of process one must go through to break new ground or blaze a new trail. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one other humanist celebrant in the Atlanta metropolitan area but whereas she is also a Universalist Unitarian minister, I am avowedly an atheist. The truth of the matter is that anyone who openly identifies as I do must expect public scrutiny and possible rejection. People in the United States still discriminate against atheists, even though more and more people are using the word “atheist” to self-identify. In other words, just because one uses the term openly and proudly doesn’t mean he or she will be accepted without question and won’t face rejection. In addition, religious bigotry and social entitlement here in the South is widespread among people of every color and background. Many, including African Americans, openly discriminate against or exclude other black people from social and professional circles when they learn that those others are atheists.
Conversely, this experience has taught me much about what it means to live an authentic life as an atheist. It helped me to develop an unshakable belief in myself and in the goodness of humanity during the time that I stepped away from faith and religious life. I was a Christian up until the age of about thirty-five. Now that I’m approaching my forty-sixth year, I’ve learned the true meaning of faith as an atheist, and realize that many times when I’ve faced discrimination or exclusion, it’s been from the lips of a believer who claims to have faith in a so-called loving “Higher Power.”
My first time navigating the courts in Atlanta, Georgia, as a humanist celebrant was far from loving. Yet, it taught me the value of being good and godless in a world dominated by systems and people who put their faith in gods but who don’t seem to have the slightest idea what it means to be loving and accepting of anyone who doesn’t adhere to their religious beliefs. This self-centered and unjust mindset is something to which I will never, ever return.