The Ethical Dilemma: Help! I Officiated a Wedding That Was Not Legal.

Joan Reisman-Brill advises an officiant who joined a couple in marriage—only to discover that the marriage was deemed not legal.

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Humanist Position on Sexual Deviations: I think humanists believe in sexual freedom. Two persons of the same sex or opposite sex could enjoy sexual intercourse with each other as long as they do not infringe the right of others. Then please answer the following questions, from a humanist point of view:

Assuming that the following people will ensure that no child is produced as the result of their sexual intercourse, all parties consented and the rights of no party are infringed, would humanists accept if the following had sex: An adult son or daughter with his/her mother, if there is no father (and conversely, with the father if there’s no mother); two siblings; more than one couple? Also, would prostitution (i.e., giving sexual pleasure for money or other rewards) be acceptable?

—50 Shades of Curiosity

Dear Curiosity:

Since humanists don’t believe any god is watching us, and we don’t take orders from any book or clergy, we are free to do whatever with whomever strikes our fancy, right? Not quite.

While you don’t mention legal ramifications, there are laws against much of what you suggest here—and humanists don’t advocate ignoring laws, although we do advocate changing them if we think they are misguided.

You stipulate absence of the other parent in the parent/child liaisons, when in theory they’d be covered by your “all parties consent” clause. But when you come down to it, such neat stipulations would be messy in practice. An adult might profess to be fine with getting it on with a parent or sibling, but what brought him or her to that place? If parents are turned on by the possibility of sex with their kids once they reach adulthood, might they not pave the way by feeding their children a side of kinky fairy tales along with their baby food? The possibilities for exploitation and coercion are overwhelming. And would people who had a history of hooking up with their parents, children or siblings be viewed as undesirable by other prospective mates—the kind they could marry?

Regarding coupled couples: While polygamy has always had its devotees and is legal in some places (not in the U.S., and elsewhere restricted to men taking multiple wives, but not the other way around), even as an informal, transient get-together between a couple plus one or more additions, it opens up all sorts of tricky questions about the arrangements (e.g., who’s on top, physically and in the pecking order). Even your proviso that no child will be produced is subject to slip-ups in real life.

Just writing about this makes me feel a tad creepy. Perhaps it’s my own hang-ups and upbringing, but I’m still troubled on multiple levels by Woody Allen and his girlfriend’s (Mia Farrow’s) adopted daughter getting it on, even though that was entirely legal, and Woody and Soon Yi are still together after all these years. Even if Mia had been cool with it (“Oh, so you’re dumping me for my daughter who you’ve known through me since she was a preteen? No problem.”), she wasn’t and I’m not.

I also don’t get why people get married if they’re itching to mix-and-match with outsiders. Although swinging has certainly had rounds of almost mainstream popularity, how often do both partners whole-heartedly consent—or does one just go along, suppressing distress, to appease the other? How many marriages can endure such “openness” for long?

As for prostitution, you expand your definition to include not just money but other rewards. It could be argued that all relationships would then qualify as prostitution, because they all involve the promise of some kind of benefit, material or psychic. But right now, prostitution (i.e., sex for hire) is illegal in most states. Humanists could certainly make the case that legalizing prostitution would make it safer (in terms of crime and sexually-transmitted diseases) for all concerned, and improve the lives of prostitutes in myriad ways. But unless and until it’s legal, it’s literally a risky business for all parties. And just as with marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, strip clubs and porn, legalization doesn’t mean it’s ok for everyone everywhere all the time. I support the idea of regulating prostitution but I don’t support the idea of my spouse becoming Client 10.

So I don’t see a humanist carte blanche for the various relationships you suggest. I haven’t done the research, but I suspect that the parent/child and sibling relationships you pose are taboo, legally or otherwise, in virtually all societies and across most religions—and there may be some innate wisdom in that, regardless of the wellspring. Religious people often think atheists have nothing to guide their actions because we don’t get our prohibitions and permissions handed to us from ancient scrolls, or from human or supernatural authority figures. But we do strive to develop principles and guidelines, which we get from thoughtfully weighing the costs and benefits for all parties–not only the individuals involved, but also the surrounding society.

For most people, it would be a giant leap to accept the unconventional combinations you suggest. Everyone makes their own choices (whether or not they have a religion telling them what those choices should be). But with all the other possibilities for sexual relationships, incest and ménages—with volunteers or for-profit participants—seem like fraught options. Although until recently, most people felt similarly uncomfortable about same-sex relationships but have evolved to accept those, the similarity ends when incest and coercion begin. Maybe things will look different in the future, but right now the predictable as well as unpredictable potential pitfalls of your proposed liaisons dangereuses are reason to tread down those paths with extreme caution, if at all.


Marrying Kind: I recently became a certified Humanist Celebrant and am planning to conduct my first wedding ceremony for a couple I don’t know well. I mentioned this to a friend, and he said years ago he got credentials from the Universal Life Church specifically to marry a couple, and later he learned the marriage wasn’t legal. He was fine with that, reasoning that as long as they stayed together, it wouldn’t make any difference, but if they decided to split up, they wouldn’t have to go through an expensive divorce.

Would legal validity also be an issue for couples married by a Humanist Celebrant? How can I be sure the couple I officiate for will be legally married, and what are the ramifications if they are not? Would I be obligated to inform them, return my fee or do it over the right way? Could I be sued? What would happen if the wedding wasn’t legal and one of them decided not to fix it—would the other have no spousal rights?

—Can’t Sleep

Dear Can’t,

Whoa, that’s a lot of worries. But don’t worry, be happy: Unlike officiants from the Universal Life Church, Humanist Celebrants are recognized in all 50 states. Although laws in each state vary about who has the right to perform wedding services, Humanist Celebrants are categorized as clergy and have the same rights and responsibilities as ordained religious clergy. The Humanist Society, an adjunct of the American Humanist Association, handles all aspects of becoming or finding a Humanist Celebrant.

That said, you still need to contact the county clerk where the wedding will be performed to get the specific requirements for wedding licenses in that particular state. Find out what proof of identity and age the bride and groom (and you) must produce; what the wedding license fee is; how much in advance of the wedding the license must be obtained (waiting period) and how long after it’s obtained it’s still good (it may expire after a few months); any other requirements, such as the number of witnesses and the credentials they will need; and what papers must be signed and filed with the clerk afterwards. If you’re performing a same-sex wedding, check the laws in that state and be sure your information is up to date (these things can change from one day to the next).

Every family must have a story or two about relatives who found out their wedding was not legal (usually after the key parties had passed away and someone was rummaging through boxes in an attic), and there are plenty of sitcom plots that revolve around long-married couples who discover they aren’t. I knew a couple who did everything right but then the officiant (in this case an elderly rabbi who had done hundreds of weddings) apparently forgot to mail in the paperwork that needed to be filed. Fortunately, the groom—a lawyer—wondered why they never received the official wedding license, checked into it and straightened it out before the bride (who’d said no for years before she said yes) could change her mind.

Your friend who realized the wedding he performed was not valid, however, has an ethical obligation to inform the couple so they can take the necessary steps to make their union legal. If both of them agree they’d rather not, that may not be a problem—but they should check with a lawyer to be sure. And if one of them wants to let it remain not legal but the other claims spousal benefits, they’re going to need a lawyer—or two or three (one for each of them and one for your friend, who could be sued for a fraudulent ceremony).

To be on the absolutely safe side, any couple could simply get married by the county clerk or justice of the peace in his or her chambers, with only the required witness or two. Then on the day and venue of their choosing, they could enact the wedding ceremony, with you officiating in front of their guests. But such extreme caution really isn’t necessary—the law tends to give people a break if their marriage is invalidated by something as simple as a clerical error, a typo, or a misplaced file. And I wonder how many people even know where their wedding license is, let alone are ever asked to prove that their marriage is legal.