When you think about it, there are not that many big events in people’s lives. You can fall in love; move to a new city; graduate from school; have a child; and get married. Since marriage is one of those big life events, most people want their wedding to be memorable, and have special meaning in their lives. Both the giant church wedding with the string quartet, and the couple getting married in the middle of a skydive share that goal.
One way that some couples want to customize their wedding is their choice in who is to perform the ceremony. Their minister, a childhood preacher, or even a friend ordained over the Internet may make sense to a particular couple. However, it is important to choose a person who is authorized by the state of North Carolina to perform your wedding. According to the statutes of North Carolina , there are only two groups who can legally marry somebody in North Carolina. First, an ordained minister of any religious denomination (or a minister authorized by a church) can create a valid marriage. Second, if a person prefers to have a secular or non-religious ceremony, a magistrate judge can also create a valid marriage. Once the marriage has occurred, the law treats both the religious and secular marriages the same.
I have lately seen advertisements for humanist, non-religious, “ministers” who promise to perform weddings focused on the couple, and not a deity. Can these people perform legally binding marriages in the state of North Carolina? Since they are not magistrates, appointed pursuant to the North Carolina General Statutes by a senior resident superior court judge they cannot perform a civil ceremony. Therefore, they cannot perform a civil wedding. That only leaves the religious wedding. While North Carolina allows a religious group to decide for themselves who is authorized to perform a wedding, (leaving room for ordinations over the Internet) there still has to be a religious denomination or church involved. The problem is that if a person is advertising performing a wedding in the absence of religion, is he exercising on behalf of a denomination or faith group and is the “service” he is providing (which specifically calls out a lack of religion/faith) furthering the purpose and mission of the religious or faith based institution from which he draws his ordination? In my opinion the answer would be no. I would recommend that any couple wanting a non-religious wedding be married by a magistrate, and later, if they wish, conduct any humanist ceremony that they think is appropriate. If not, and the marriage is later found to be invalid, it could have serious effects regarding divorce, equitable distribution, inheritance rights of spouses, and other issues.
--Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC with Hodges & Coxe PC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Homeowner's Associations, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.