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Civil Wedding 101: How to Have a Nonreligious Ceremony

Not going to the chapel? Here's the scoop on nonreligious weddings.

WHY GO SECULAR?

Maybe you're not particularly religious and want a ceremony that avoids any mention of God. Perhaps the pomp and circumstance of a wedding in a house of worship don't suit you. Or it could be that you want to create an original ceremony with minimal restrictions.

WHO CAN OFFICIATE?

It varies from state to state. Log onto usmarriagelaws.com for specifics, then verify the info with your local city hall or county clerk's office. Ask recently married friends and wedding vendors for referrals, then meet face-to-face with candidates.

County Clerk
The upside: The ceremony is short and inexpensive, and requires no appointment. The downside: the no-frills vibe, office setting, and (often) long wait.

Judge
In most states, any judge—whether from district or supreme court—can solemnize a marriage.

Justice of the Peace
This officer can perform short ceremonies in her chambers during office hours but may be willing to travel to your venue.

Public Official
Some jurisdictions allow a current or former public official, such as a mayor or governor, to perform the duty.

Your Best Friend
A few states, like Vermont, California, and Massachusetts, will grant a one-day license allowing anyone to perform a wedding. This differs from having a pal go online and sign up to be, say, a Universal Life Church minister (ulc.net)—a union officiated by that person would be considered religious.

VALID VENUES

Many civil ceremonies take place in a city-hall office or judge's chambers, but if your officiant is willing to travel, you can exchange vows at your reception site, in your backyard, on a beach, or on top of a mountain—anything goes.

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

Part of the beauty of a civil ceremony is its flexibility. While it can be totally traditional, it can also include a circus theme, vows borrowed from Wedding Crashers, or waiters passing flavored vodka shots during the proceedings. To make it legal, all you must include is a line that says you are taking each other as spouses.

HOW TO JUDGE IF AN OFFICIANT IS RIGHT FOR YOU

1) Make appointments to meet a few officiants, to see whom you feel most comfortable with.

2) Ask each how long she's been officiating and whether she can provide a location (if relevant) or will travel.

3) Does she have a sample ceremony she likes to use? Talk to her about your ideas for customizing.

4) During the conversation, suss out if she's a good fit, personality- and viewpoint-wise.

5) Some officiants love to do weddings; others not so much. Take the time to find someone who cares.

—Barrie Gillies, BRIDES magazine

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