Humanist Wedding Ceremonies Grow

Subtitle: How weddings can be good without God

When the Wilmington atheist couple decided to join their lives a year ago, they knew they wanted a secular wedding celebrant, but their families weren’t so sure.

Her family is Methodist. His is “generally spiritual.” And they worried about even telling Mike’s grandmother, who is Eastern Orthodox.

So they found a wedding celebrant ordained through the Humanist Society – HAN HILLS of Leap of Humanity in Wilmington – who allowed their family members to read a spiritual poem.

“Nobody seemed to notice that we didn’t mention God,” Holowaty says. “People came up afterward and said it was one of the best weddings they’d seen.”

With the rise of the “nones” – the twenty percent of Americans without a particular spirituality – more couples are looking for wedding celebrants who don’t mind skipping God’s blessing of the ceremony altogether.

More national atheist and humanist agencies such as the Humanist Society and Center for Inquiry are developing ordaining programs to establish non-theist ministers in most states to perform weddings and funerals. Center for Inquiry began its certification program in 2009.

There are currently 138 celebrants listed as ordained through the Humanist Society, and some perform weddings in multiple states. The national Center for Inquiry also has an ordaining program and lists twenty-three celebrants.

The creative elements of a humanist wedding don’t differ much from a religious one. There are sand-mixing ceremonies, candle-lighting ceremonies, and walking down an aisle in a white dress. Vows are typically written by the couples themselves, Hills says.

Hills already has eight weddings booked this year across North Carolina and is starting to book weddings for 2014. And he’s only been formally advertising his services for a few months.

“You need a certain personality to do this. If you’re mousy, and you can’t think in a crisis, this isn’t for you,” he says, laughing. “It’s the only job where you can look out, and if you see old ladies crying, then you’re doing a good job. It’s an honor to be given this place of reverence.”

North Carolina’s celebrant numbers have grown to seven, while New York and California have the most at about twenty each. But there are some states without any humanist celebrants listed such as Wyoming and West Virginia.

Humanist Society program coordinator Sadie Rothman says she gets at least two requests for humanist celebrant applications each month. But the process to become a celebrant requires five character references and training sessions.

Becoming a wedding celebrant outside of an established faith system can present legal challenges, depending on the state.

In North Carolina, marriages performed through the Universal Life Church, for example, have been debated. Under state law, those ceremonies before 1981 are considered valid, but their legality after that date gets murky with the statute questioning whether the state recognizes the ceremonies.

University of North Carolina School of Government professor Chuck Szypszak says as long as the couple and minister recognize the Universal Life Church as a religion, “I don’t think any judge is going to challenge that.” He pointed out that a court case in the state involving the validity of Universal Life Church ceremonies specifically related to bigamy.

Because the Humanist Society is a religious nonprofit, an adjunct to the American Humanist Association, it is considered a valid marrying entity in the state. But Indiana humanist celebrants certified through the Center for Inquiry lost a legal battle in December over the validity of the marriages they performed.

Mike Werner, past president of the American Humanist Association, says the demand for humanist celebrants will grow to include traditionally ordained ministers interested in officiating non-theist ceremonies.

For Amanda and Mike Holowaty, they didn’t want to settle for a justice of the peace. They wanted to celebrate their values in a scenic wedding near the ocean.

“You see weddings in movies and on TV, the bride being given away and walking down the aisle,” she says.

“It was really the same desire for us, just minus the religious aspect.”

Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values,

To view more of photographer Mark Steelman’s work, go to