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Commentary: District Marriage Laws Should Get With The Times

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Finding someone to officiate her wedding in D.C. was more complicated than Deena Fox thought.
Thomas Van Veen for Documentary Associates
Finding someone to officiate her wedding in D.C. was more complicated than Deena Fox thought.

When my husband and I were planning our wedding here in Washington last year we thought carefully about the type of ceremony we wanted and who would officiate. We are Jewish and wanted a traditional ceremony, but according to Jewish law, anyone can act as the master of ceremonies; though it has become common to have a rabbi preside, it isn't necessary. So, we chose a few of our closest friends to lead all of our guests through the ritual of the wedding.

But as I then looked into the process for making it all legal, I ran into a problem. In Washington, after you apply for your marriage license, your wedding must be officiated by either a judge or an ordained minister. Representatives of religions that don't require clergy to perform a marriage can also officiate, but only with documentation from their religious group authorizing them to conduct weddings. The law privileges those who marry in traditional religious ceremonies led by ordained or authorized ministers, while requiring everyone else to have their marriages performed at the courthouse.

A Universal Life minister, with an online ordination, could preside at our wedding, as could a rabbi, but our Jewish, non-rabbi friends would not be able to meet the requirements to make it official. For that we would have to hold two weddings — one at the court, and one under a chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy.

Having two weddings was actually twice the fun. But as a matter of principle, the District should not impose limits on who is authorized to perform weddings. Privileging religious representatives as the only non-State actors who can conduct weddings fails to reflect the range of modern conceptions of marriage. While some D.C. residents surely feel strongly about having a clergy member preside over their marriage, others feel similarly committed to having a wedding without religious content. Why should anyone who chooses to be married by someone other than an ordained religious leader be required to conduct a second ceremony to make it legal?

Instead, the District should continue its reform of marriage laws and authorize any person — regardless of religion or religious authority — to conduct a marriage ceremony. D.C. should adopt a model already accepted by some states, and allow any adult to apply for a one-day permit to conduct a wedding. This model would empower anyone the couple chooses to sign their marriage license, eliminating the special privileges currently available only to those who choose to tie the knot before an authorized religious minister.

Deena Fox is a civil rights attorney in the District. Her commentary came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their experiences with us and a way for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. For more about PIN or to submit your own commentary go to WAMU.org/PIN.

You can also join a conversation about the wedding industry today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show starting at noon.

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