Minnesota atheists sue over right to perform marriages

A lawsuit in Washington County is asking that atheists be granted the same rights to perform marriages as religious organizations ranging from Hindu associations to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Atheists for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based out of a geodesic dome in north Minneapolis, sued Washington County last month after a representative of the group was denied a certificate of ordination by the county.

The lawsuit stems from an incident in April where a member of the atheist group was issued credential to perform marriages by the group, which the plaintiffs say was accepted in Hennepin, Anoka and Stearns counties. When the member sought to receive official certification from Washington County, the application was initially accepted. But three days later, Taxpayer Services Division manager Steven Gransee wrote the applicant to tell them that "a member of an atheist organization...does not meet the statutory requirement."

Another member of the group, plaintiff Rodney Rogers, repeated the process in September. The lawsuit says he was told by the clerk on duty that "he could not be issued credentials to solemnize marriages because the clerks had been instructed not to accept applications from any atheist or humanist organizations."

State law gives counties the authority to grant the right to legally perform marriages to former or current judicial officials or representatives certified by a religious organization. The law also includes provisions explicitly covering representatives of a number of other religions including those practiced by Quakers and Native Americans. A bill specifically stating that atheists should be given the same right was introduced in the state Legislature, but hasn't passed.

The group's lawyer Randall Tigue said he wants the court to declare the law unconstitutional. He argues that the law and county's policy constitutes a government establishment of religion. The group also says the policy violated Roger's free speech and right to equal protection under the law.

The group's communication director, Maria Alena Castle, said in an affidavit filed earlier this month that online ordinations in obscure or fake religions were commonly accepted as certification by counties.

"These included the Universal Life Church and the Church of the Latter Day Dude, a religion of the Big Lebowski," Castle said. "Many atheists who want to be certified as marriage celebrants do not want to engage in the hypocrisy of pretending they are ministers of phony churches."

In a response to the suit filed on Oct. 10, Washington County Assistant Attorney Richard Hodsdon wrote that the sort of organizations that can award credentials is mandated by state law and non discretionary.

Hodsdon wrote that a comment on the group's website about pending legislation is evidence that the group's disagreement is with the state law and not the county: "We have to wait until the November elections are over before we proceed with legislation to amend the Minnesota marriage statutes to include celebrants other than court personnel and clergy," an update on the website read.

Neither Castle nor Hodsdon immediately responded to a request for comment.

Atheists for Human Rights has filed a request for the court to issue a preliminary injunction against the law.

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