The Ethical Dilemma: No Prayers for Cancer Patient, No God at the Wedding

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Impatient Patient: I have stage four cancer with little chance of long-term survival. I am OK with it and grateful for the wonderful life I’ve had.

Although they know I’m a confirmed atheist, my many religious friends insist on telling me they are praying for me and some insist on talking of heaven. I find this disrespectful of my beliefs and very annoying (although I appreciate that they mean well). In addition, do they think their god is running a popularity contest?  If nobody prays for you, you don’t get to heal, but receive more prayers and he will save you? It doesn’t make any sense to me, but there doesn’t seem to be any polite response.

—Is It OK to Be Rude?

Dear Rude,
First of all, I want to express my sorrow for your diagnosis and prognosis. I also want to commend you for how you are focusing on the good life you have enjoyed—and giving your obtuse friends the benefit of the doubt.

One of the things many of us look forward to in our golden years is the freedom to say whatever we like without being concerned about long-term repercussions if we offend anyone. No one tells it like it is better than very young children and very old people who feel they have earned the privilege and have nothing to lose. That license extends to anyone in a situation like yours, no matter what age you may be.

If people are irritating you in their efforts to make you feel better—or perhaps more accurately, to make themselves feel better—there’s not much reason for you to hold back or suck it up. Of course, you don’t want to scare everyone away, and you don’t want to crush anyone or make them feel terrible about themselves—or say anything you may later wish to take back or apologize for. But you certainly don’t have to put anyone else’s comfort ahead of your own. So what if a couple of these people decide to abandon you rather than change their tune when they speak to you? So what if you make them feel awkward or as though they have committed a faux pas (which they have)? So what if you force them to question their cherished platitudes?

This is your big chance to have your say and not even hear out the other person if you don’t feel like it. At the very least, you’ll make these friends more sensitive to your wishes and less likely to waste your precious time with their friendly BS. Beyond that, you may prevent them from doing the same thing to other people in the future. You might even knock some of them out of their orbit and onto a trajectory away from ridiculous beliefs.

Act now to put your affairs in order both for end of life issues (e.g., pain management, medical intervention, hospice) and afterwards (e.g., executor, will, funeral). Make sure you have someone in charge whom you can trust not to subvert your preferences with their religion. Then continue to be polite if you don’t have the energy or patience to assert your views or critique theirs. But if it would make you feel good to express yourself, voice whatever is on your mind, and let the cow chips fall where they may.

We welcome updates if you care to share what you decide to do and the reactions you get.

Do I Have To Invoke God When I Officiate A Wedding? I am a wedding officiant who performs secular weddings. I’ve been involved in the wedding industry for two decades, and finally just decided to perform ceremonies. I did this because of the gap in my state in secular celebrants. Couples must be wed by a “clergy” member, a judge, or a county clerk (or a friend deputized for the day).

Finding a judge who regularly marries people is difficult. A county clerk’s office is a drab government office. Friends are often well-meaning but may freeze when they have to perform in front of a large crowd, or will back out, or just be poor public speakers. So that leaves most couples with church clergy, or the officiants out there that use the title “Reverend.”

I am an atheist/humanist, and consider myself an officiant or celebrant. I have performed a couple of ceremonies, and have several more booked. Most of the couples are thrilled to have found me (I am ordained by American Marriage Ministries and must sign my title as “minister” and check off “religious ceremony” on the license. Welcome to the Dark Ages!). My couples tell me that they are so glad that they can have a secular ceremony and not worry about god or prayers popping up. I am very clear on my website and in my contract that my ceremonies are secular.

Here’s my dilemma: I have been working with a bride, and now it’s time to send the ceremony script and have her and her fiancé work on their vows and approve the rest of the ceremony. My bride just went out of the country to scatter her recently deceased father’s ashes. The groom is now trying to take care of everything for her. In my first conversation with him, he tells me that god must be mentioned as they are both very religious, very Catholic, and that after she gets her prior marriage annulled with the church, they will have a church ceremony. I let him know that I perform secular ceremonies, and I won’t be saying any prayers. He says fine, he understands, but god needs to be mentioned. The bride, who hired me, said nothing about religion.

My first instinct is that I will send him the normal script (I offer choices of wording for the ceremony elements, all very progressive, not traditional) and he can do with it what he wishes. My husband, playing devil’s advocate, asks me, “You’re outraged at wedding vendors who refuse service to gay couples, but aren’t you doing the same to this religious couple?” He has a good point there. I don’t want my (non) religious views to interfere with this couple getting married. I see no problem with me promoting my business as liberal, progressive, non-traditional, LGBTQ-friendly, and secular—just as a Christian business person might advertise that they are Christian. But am I just as bigoted for not wanting to provide a religious ceremony service?

My inclination is to “perform” what they want as long as it harms no one. I won’t pray, because that crosses an ethical boundary for me. If they want me to mention god, it’s just words, even if I don’t believe those words. I also do wedding florals, and I had no issue creating a cross for a bride a few weeks ago—it’s just art to me, it doesn’t make a difference. My daughter pointed out, however, that the floral cross I made was a product the bride projects her beliefs onto but has no meaning for me, not a cultural ritual ceremony that I had to perform.

The idea of saying the god stuff give me jitters about my integrity. I’m hoping the couple will like their choices in the wedding scripts I’m sending them, and won’t even notice that god is missing. But what would you do if they want god mentioned and they want prayers or god blessings?

—God No

Dear No,
You say god is “only” a word. And prayers are only words. But this couple has hired you to deliver words—ones that both you and the couple hope will be meaningful. These words are the soul of the wedding—everything else is just a party. But we’ll get back to words and meaning in a moment.

You are doing the right thing by showing the couple your usual godless scripts and then letting them get back to you on how they may want to amend what you offer. It’s OK if you opt to please your clients. (As a party planner who was getting very frustrated with me said over and over under his breath—though I could hear him—“The customer is always right.”) This is, after all, a business and perhaps an important source of your income.

If you were officiating as a certified Humanist Celebrant, I would lean toward being less accommodating. Although some humanists believe in god, the vast majority adamantly do not and would want to recuse themselves from rites they could not perform in good conscience. Rachael Berman, coordinator of The Humanist Society’s Humanist Celebrant program, notes that many humanist celebrants choose to not personally use any god language in the ceremony, but if a family is insistent, some celebrants will have that family member come up and do a reading or a prayer.

Since you are ordained through the American Marriage Ministries, which is very loosey-goosey about these things, you are free to concoct whatever script you and your couple agree upon. Akin to Rachael’s suggestion, another way you can preserve your sense of personal integrity is deflect any reference to religion onto the couple, such as, “The bride and groom ask god to bless this union” rather than positioning it as you personally invoking a supernatural power you don’t believe exists.

To respond to your devilish husband, I don’t think this is really comparable to a business refusing service, particularly since what you do is classified as religious. If on your website or in your marketing materials you state that you specialize in strictly secular ceremonies with no prayer and no deities, you are within your rights to refuse to mention a god or conduct prayers. I knew a rabbi whose synagogue had decided to allow gay weddings, and when interviewed in the New York Times, he stated that he was nearing retirement, had never performed a same-sex wedding, and never would. I respected him for standing his ground. (Had he been younger, however, he would have had to choose between his principles and keeping his job. His successor is more accommodating.) And as your daughter notes, the cross you made is an object you simply hand over to the person who commissioned it. No one will associate it with you (unless someone asks who made it). But standing up and delivering pronouncements you don’t buy into is another matter, which does matter.

I’m not qualified to offer legal advice, but I suspect that as a member of a ministry you are within your rights to adhere to your stated creed, whether that means mentioning or omitting God, and refusing to violate your policies, whatever they may be. No one can win a case against a rabbi who refuses to invoke Christ, and I don’t believe anyone can win against a certified minister who declares herself secular and refuses to give a shout-out to a god. In contrast, a wedding vendor doesn’t have that religious rights loophole. You also need to consider whether you have a contract that can be broken by you and/or the couple if you refuse to do what they demand. And although I know you have already performed several weddings, I urge you to be sure your credentials are recognized. These things vary from state to state and can even be subject to the whims of one particular county clerk. For genuine legal counsel, you can contact AHA’s legal center.

Now back to words and meaning: I have almost no words to express the meaning of two Catholics who are having a ceremony (possibly invoking their god, but they’d be wiser to do this behind his back) to tide them over between two church weddings and a divorce that will magically be transformed into an annulment, like that season of Dallas. This is just the height of hypocrisy and typical of people trying to comply with their religion’s immutable but impossible laws. What you have been hired to do is facilitate an end-run around Catholic doctrine (e.g., no divorce, and no sex outside of marriage). It will be a totally specious ceremony that will be overridden by the “real” one in the church (the church will not recognize this one). So you shouldn’t feel guilty about just mouthing platitudes if that’s what you have to do—or referring them to a drab justice of the peace if you decide you don’t want any part of it.

You are not the least bit bigoted for wanting to restrict yourself to religion-free services, or for feeling weird about this one, which is actually profoundly religious. A less devout couple either would wait for the annulment and do only the church wedding (enjoying verboten extramarital relations while they while away the time), or just get hitched outside the church and the hell with it. This couple is hopelessly entangled in their dogma, and they are making you an accessory. If you decide to comply this time, be clearer about your secular services next time.

And congratulations on having such a rational and supportive family!