Humanist Celebrant Fred Edwords Testifies at DC Marriage Bill Hearing

Update Aug. 7 2013: The Bill as passed. Details from Metro Weekly can be found here. A copy of the bill can be seen here.

On March 14, 2013, a public hearing on Bill 20-118, the “Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013” was held in Washington, DC. Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairperson of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, recently introduced the bill, which would establish the authority of a temporary marriage officiant to perform a marriage ceremony in Washington DC. The law currently allows only certified ministers or celebrants affiliated with a recognized religious society, or judges.

Fred Edwords, Director of the United Coalition for Reason and Humanist Celebrant certified to perform weddings in Washington DC, testified at the hearing. Others there to testify were Richard J. Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; Steve Lowe of the Washington Area Secular Humanists; Benetta M. Standly of the ACLU-DC Chapter; the Reverend Bonnie J. Berger, who listed herself as an Interfaith Minister; and a few people testifying as individuals.

Edwords’ testimony is below:

DC Marriage Bill Hearing: Testimony of Frederick Edwords of the Humanist Society

On behalf of the Humanist Society, I’m addressing you today for two reasons: first, to express support for the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013 but, second, to urge you to consider taking the spirit behind that Act even further.

Let me begin by drawing attention to some important characteristics of Humanism. Like Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, Humanism is without any theology or concept of a supreme being. Put simply, there is no god in the Humanist outlook. But unlike all world religions, Humanism is also without any notion of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some higher source of spiritual knowledge or some cosmic foundation for morality. Rather, Humanism is about human means for understanding the world and human motives for acting in it.

This means that Humanists are atheists, agnostics, or skeptics who see the universe as natural. As such, the majority of Humanists in the organized Humanist movement prefer to not regard themselves as religious at all. And when it comes to their weddings, they often specifically ask for non-religious ceremonies. Indeed, of all the Humanist weddings I’ve personally conducted over the years, only one was held in an identifiably religious building and none were characterized as religious by the wedding couple.

However, for the purposes of D.C. Code § 46-406, the word “religious” is broadly defined to include not only the common theological meanings of that term but, as an alternative, “a devotion to some principle, strict fidelity or faithfulness, conscientiousness, pious affection, or attachment.” And that’s where Humanists fit in. But, of course, this language excludes those Humanists who prefer to distance themselves from the term “religious” altogether.

Therefore, thanks to the new opportunity offered by the proposed Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013, those preferring to identify themselves as nonreligious will become empowered, on a case-by-case basis, to officiate at secular wedding ceremonies. Likewise, the wedding couples will not have to have their ceremonies characterized as religious. This will be recognized as a boon by this non-theistic constituency as well as an important step in the direction of broader inclusiveness and greater social pluralism.

The Humanist Society is an organization that has long conducted ceremonies that are non-religious in philosophy or style, even though characterized as religious by the law. And it has certified celebrants who are atheists, agnostics, or skeptics. As such, it fully supports legislation that allows for improved government recognition of non-religious people. Hence it’s support for the Act.

But it is hoped that the Council will—now or in the future—see its way clear to also recognize the existence of non-religious, secular philosophies as having the same power in the lives of some individuals as religious beliefs have in the lives of others. And in so recognizing, it is hoped the Council will consider broadening the language of the law so that secular philosophies, and the societies and other institutions that promote them, won’t have to be included under a broadened meaning of the term “religious.” Likewise, it is hoped that nonreligious celebrants wishing to solemnize secular weddings won’t have to secure separate authorization for each individual occasion.

Thank you for allowing me this time to address you on an issue of importance to Humanists and others residing in or wishing to be married in the District of Columbia.

The Humanist Society of the American Humanist AssociationTo learn more about the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Society, which certifies humanist, atheist, and non-religious celebrants to perform weddings, funerals, and other life ceremonies, visit