Millennials aren't going to the chapel when they get married

Dan Cox for Yahoo News

The summer wedding season is over, but the fall season is in full swing — it’s a little-known fact that after June, October is the most popular month for weddings. But as couples prepare to exchange vows in front of friends and family, many of them are headed someplace other than a chapel. Of the many ways the typical American wedding has changed over the years, perhaps the most dramatic is the venue.

Today’s couples are forgoing the traditional church setting in favor of rustic barns, high-end hotels or the county courthouse. A recent New York Times article noted that since 2008, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in weddings held at the city clerk’s Manhattan marriage bureau. Given the uncertain economic terrain many young couples are navigating and the ever-skyrocketing costs of a ceremony and reception (the average cost of a wedding in 2014 was more than $30,000), the shift to more modest venues might not be surprising.

An abundance of nonreligious wedding venues may also appeal to young couples who believe the event should be a reflection of their tastes and interests, much like their curated social media lives. Why settle for your childhood church when you could say “I do” in an art gallery or at a craft brewery?

There is evidence, however, that more than pragmatic or aesthetic concerns are in play for many young couples. The rise in courthouse weddings is one clue that something more fundamental has shifted in the religious landscape.

According to a major survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2013, younger couples are much more likely than older couples to prefer secular wedding venues and ceremonies. Only 39 percent of married young adults (ages 18 to 29) report that their weddings took place in a church or other place of worship and were administered by a religious leader — compared to nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of seniors (ages 65 and older). In fact, roughly the same percentage of young adults (37 percent) say their weddings took place in a secular setting and were led by a secular officiant, such as a justice of the peace or close friend. Only 1 in 5 (20 percent) seniors report getting married the same way.

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There are three major reasons why religious institutions are increasingly sidelined during wedding season. The rise of interreligious marriages — and the lack of interfaith worship centers — may encourage couples to seek out secular venues that can more easily accommodate their particular religious or spiritual needs. Fewer than half (45 percent) of married couples in interfaith marriages report being married at a church or house of worship with a religious officiant, compared to nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of married couples who share the same faith. Many traditional religious organizations simply lack the flexibility to serve as a viable option for interfaith ceremonies, or are in some cases opposed to marrying couples from different faith backgrounds. For many interfaith couples, a secular setting may not be the first choice, but it might be the easiest alternative.

The growing popularity of secular weddings may also be fueled by the swelling ranks of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Religious nonaffiliation continues to tick upward each year, while many religious groups are losing members and public confidence in organized religion is mired at historic lows. Only 36 percent of unaffiliated Americans who are married said they got hitched at a church or other place of worship. This rate is far below those reported by married couples who are members of established religious traditions — 72 percent of Catholics, for example, report being married in the church.

The secular wedding trend may also be driven by the relatively new growth of unaffiliated couples. Over the last few decades, unaffiliated Americans have shown an increasing tendency to seek out and marry each other. In the 1970s, someone who was religiously unaffiliated was much more likely to wind up with a religious spouse (63 percent) than someone who also had no religious affiliation (37 percent). Today, nearly 6 in 10 (59 percent) unaffiliated Americans who are married report that their spouses share their unaffiliated religious status.

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Given that weddings today more often reflect the personal preferences and values of the couple rather than the prefabricated expectations of a traditional community, the decline in the use of religious venues and officiants is fairly telling. While priorities may change over the course of a marriage — particularly with the arrival of children — recent research demonstrates that the secular commitments of couples in which both partners are religiously unaffiliated tend to be far more enduring than those in which only one spouse is religious. Perhaps most importantly, unaffiliated couples are much less likely to encourage their children to explore religious ideas and engage in religious activity.

The rise of secular wedding ceremonies does not foretell an end of organized religion in this rite of passage, nor does having a secular wedding mean a couple is not religiously active or may not decide to become involved in a religious community at some later date. Historically, religion has been tightly woven into family life and has played an outsized role, both socially and spiritually, in major life events — birth, marriage and death. But during this fall wedding season, an increasing number of Americans will no longer look to churches or other religious institutions to supply the stage or the lead actors for this important event.

Dan Cox is the research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, specializing in survey research, American politics and religion.