An Atheist Isn’t Allowed to Marry Anyone — Even in Las Vegas December 14, 2008

An Atheist Isn’t Allowed to Marry Anyone — Even in Las Vegas

In order to perform a wedding ceremony in Nevada, as in many other states, you must be part of some congregation.

Humanist celebrants in American can get around this by saying they are part of The Humanist Society which has tax status as a religious group.

But some atheists don’t want to go that route. We’re atheists, not religious, they say. By denying atheists the right to preside over a wedding, you’re breaking the law.

One atheist is trying to do something about this:

Michael Jacobson, a 64-year-old retiree who calls himself a lifelong atheist, tried this year to get a license to perform weddings. Clark County [Nevada] rejected his application because he had no ties to a congregation, as state law requires.

So Jacobson and attorneys from two national secular groups — the American Humanist Assn. and the Center for Inquiry — are trying to change things. If they can’t persuade the state Legislature to rework the law, they plan to sue.

“… I’m not going to do it by saying I belong to a religious organization,” he said. “That’s a sham, because atheists are not religious.”

Jacobson filled out an application to perform marriages, but sidestepped the questions on religion. County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre said she had little choice but to reject it.

But Bob Ritter, an attorney for the American Humanist Assn., argued that when a celebrant marries a couple, he is acting as an agent of the state. Therefore, it’s unconstitutional to block someone from holding that position based on his religion — or lack of it, he says.

It’s amazing that just about anyone and everyone can get a license to perform marriage ceremonies in Vegas — but atheists are refused this courtesy.

What chance do you think this lawsuit has of succeeding?

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  • It’s a pretty black and white case, really. My best guess is the atheist will loose first time through but on one of the appeals to a higher court will win. Locally, Mormons have a fair bit of authority, but the federal court – the 9th Circuit – will, I believe, give a good hearing. It’s a pretty shameful thing that a country that prides itself on separation of church and state still has this kind of nonsense, and the 9th Circuit has traditionally been open to that kind of thing.

    I don’t see the state of Nevada fighting this very far, either. Nevada tends to . . . well, they don’t like negative publicity. And it isn’t like religious organizations like Nevada so much, if you see what I’m saying. So there’s not too much reason for Nevada to fight too hard to protect a law that they admit dates to frontier times.

  • Tao Jones

    This actually surprises me.

    Here in Canada there are two types of ceremonies for performing weddings as governed by the Marriage Act. One is for religious ceremonies which is basically just what needs to be said within the context of a religious ceremony to make the oath of marriage legally binding. The second is for “city hall” court officials or their agents. The easy way to become an officiant is to be endorsed by a recognized religious group. However it was still possible to serve as an agent of the court. It required some hoops to jump through but I don’t recall anything prohibitive in the process.

    Also, what made the marriage legal was the license itself so many people would just go to the courthouse with their witnesses to make it all official then have the ceremony later which was more for ceremony.

  • Marriage isn’t church property, is it? It’s a legally binding contract between two people. It’s an agreement that doesn’t need use of a church at all to make official. So, why not allow atheists to perform ceremonies?

  • Dan

    The Nevada Revised Statutes cover this, and does essentially say what is listed in the main post. To understand this, though, one has to look at the genesis of the Nevada law. Heh heh… I said “genesis”. Pardon the pun.

    Nevada law makes obtaining a marriage license very simple – no blood test, etc. In major cities, some county marriage license offices are open 24/7, which makes things even easier. Many of the chapels set up around Las Vegas thrive on that simplicity, and realize that it is a major boon to their business. Years ago, though, they realized that any schmoe could get in on the action and open a quickie wedding chapel. They petitioned the state, and the current law was created. It’s real purpose is to make it difficult to open any new wedding chapels, and therefore stifle competition against those already grandfathered in under the old law.

    NRS 122.064 specifically states that the county clerk must determine that “The applicant’s ministry is primarily one of service to his congregation or denomination, and that his performance of marriages will be incidental to that service.” Seems to be pretty clearly designed to stifle competition.

    Performing marriage ceremonies is a lucrative business here. The state law essentially prevents a qualified citizen from working in that field solely on the basis of their lack of religion, while allowing those that are religious to perform the same duties. This is essentially discriminatory, and a violation of the equal protection clause. Think of it this way – if the law stated that you had to be a Judeo-Christian to get a state driver’s license, and you weren’t, the law would obviously be discriminatory. NRS 122.064 is essentially the same thing. It could easily be fought on a federal level.

    Agreed, though – Nevada is unlikely to fight this very hard, especially now that the Democrats control both the assembly and the senate here.

  • Michael

    Jacobson filled out an application to perform marriages, but sidestepped the questions on religion. County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre said she had little choice but to reject it.

    Did he not fill anything in on the questions, or did he put down something like “N/A” or “None”?

    If he didn’t put anything in them, then they could claim that he was rejected for an incomplete application, right?

    But if he did put in “N/A” or “None” then the application is valid and the rejection would be discriminatory, I think.

  • stephanie

    I’d like to see this go through.
    I’m a Humanist Officiant, but I had to spend a hundred bucks and a decent amount of time to go get deputized for a single wedding (legal in California) to marry my father and his wife last month because his home state won’t recognize any religious official who does not have their own congregation.
    Quakers have an exemption because of their beliefs. I think it’s high time that Atheists do because of their lack of belief.

  • I’ve been looking into this, because in the nine months since I asked to have my licence to minister as a priest indefinitely suspended, two people have asked if I’m still able (and willing) to perform their marriage ceremony. In my province, up here in Canada, if I became a Marriage Commissioner, I could only perform weddings to permanent residents of the province I become a Commissioner in, I’d have to add my name to a public list and marry anyone who asked (which wasn’t a requirement when I was working as a priest), and I’d be obliged to provide a space on property I own for the marriage ceremony to take place in. I think there was also something about explaining why my being a Marriage Commissioner would be a benefit to the province, but that’s about it.

    I decided not to go for it, because while I wouldn’t mind helping the occassional friend and family member, I don’t want to get back into the marrying business just now. But, still, an athiest could choose to do it.

  • In Riverside County, California, anyone over the age of 18 may perform a marriage ceremony after paying a $58 filing fee. They are nominally appointed as a “deputy commissioner of marriage” for the day of the ceremony.

    I’m not sure if this filing fee is discriminatory, as I’m not sure if religious officials have to pay it. However, atheists can marry someone here. It’s $58.

  • phoenixphire24

    I hope this does go through. My husband and I were married in LV and were told we HAD to have a pastor (or other religious official) perform the ceremony. The hotel was nice enough to provide us with a non-denominational pastor who agreed to leave out anything religious. She also agreed to not say that marriage was for a “man and woman” because I had several gay friends at the ceremony. So while it worked out in the end, it would have been nice to have an actual atheist officiant.

  • From across the pond, this seems both ridiculous and paradoxical. Here in Scotland, humanist weddings became legal in June 2005, and since then demand has grown so fast they are now the 4th most popular form of marriage ceremony.

    Perhaps Nevada could learn from the Registrar General of Scotland, who allows registered celebrants of the Humanist Society of Scotland to conduct legal weddings by classifying Humanism as a “belief system”, rather than as a religion, which of course secular humanism is not.

    It would be more ethical were The Humanist Society to renounce their tax-exempt status and ‘come out’ as a secular, non-religious philosophy.

  • Richard Wade

    This sounds like a fight worth fighting and I’m confident that the plaintiff will win. I would however like to see this go beyond the state of Nevada, since the post says that several other states have similar restrictions. Taking on those states one at a time would take decades. A Supreme Court decision would trump all those state laws at once, but I am concerned that the present Bush-appointed Justices would not find in favor of equal protection.

  • Justin jm

    Richard Wade said…

    I am concerned that the present Bush-appointed Justices would not find in favor of equal protection.

    You never know. Judges don’t have to be beholden to the people that appoint them in the same way as other politicians.

    If a lawsuit is brought, it should be an open-and-shut case.

  • AxeGrrl

    uhm, ‘atheist icon’ Kathy Griffin officiated/presided over a (legal) marriage ceremony…..

    if that happened, why/how is this still an issue?

  • “They presented me with an ordination certificate, which no one ever asked to see during all my years of ministry (though I did have to show it to the State of California in 2002 when, as an atheist “minister,” I performed a secular wedding for a nonreligious couple).

    ~ Dan Barker – ‘Godless’, 2008

  • This makes me want to puke. Gay people can’t get married and atheists can’t perform weddings. Is there any more ways religious people want to pretend they “own” marriage?

  • wonkifier

    In some states notary publics can marry.

    Can’t ship captains marry? Can’t justices of the peace marry?

    I agree there should be a way for regular joe to get certified to perform a civil marriage… but it’s not quite as dire as the article paints it.

  • Apccool

    The Canadians and the European are right on. I can’t see why a movement for marriage privatization hasn’t taken hold here in the states. If you essentially gave “marriage” to the church and required all couples to seek a “certificate of union” from City Hall, who would lose? What gripes would there be from the church? no one would be getting married without the sanctity of god, wouldn’t equality be achieved? As was pointed out, you can have whatever unofficial ceremony you want, as long as you take care of business. Privatize!

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