A Judge Dismissed Their Lawsuit, but Atheists Won the Ability to Officiate Weddings in Minnesota County May 14, 2015

A Judge Dismissed Their Lawsuit, but Atheists Won the Ability to Officiate Weddings in Minnesota County

Last year, the Center For Inquiry won a lawsuit against the state of Indiana, giving non-religious people who were Secular Celebrants the ability to officiate weddings.

Before they stepped in, the only way an atheist could officiate was to direct the marrying couple to someone else to solemnize the wedding immediately afterwards, become a “minister” via a site like the Universal Life Church, or get certified by a group founded by Quakers.

So the legal victory was a welcome one. Atheists in Indiana no longer had to abdicate the solemnizing responsibility to someone else or pretend to have faith.

Later in the year, atheists in Minnesota tried to do the same thing.

A group called Atheists for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against Washington County officials for denying one of their members the chance to become an officiant:

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.”

It really made no sense to deny atheists the opportunity when you see the kind of religions Washington County had no problem with:

“These included the Universal Life Church and the Church of the Latter Day Dude, a religion of the Big Lebowski,” [AFHR communication director Maria Alena] 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.”

You could get ordained from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, too.

None of this, obviously, had any effect on the officiants’ job. If an atheist couldn’t officiate a wedding, but an atheist who paid a few bucks to get a cheap certificate from the Church of the Latter Day Dude could… why bother making us jump through that hoop in the first place?

Minnesota allowed each county set its own officiating requirements, but there needed to be some rule prohibiting discrimination. That’s what the lawsuit was all about:

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, asks that a judge declare state law and the county’s policy unconstitutional, and that the court issue a permanent injunction against denying marriage celebrant credentials based on atheist beliefs.

The bad news is that U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen threw out the atheists’ lawsuit yesterday.

The good news? It was only because they had already achieved victory:

… the reason Ericksen tossed the case is that the county has reversed its policy and will now permit atheists to officiate at weddings. Previously only members of religious groups could do so.

“Washington County has clearly and unequivocally changed its allegedly wrongful practice,” Ericksen wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said, “What it came down to was a risk-benefit for the county in that when we were sued based on our plain reading of the statute, we realized there was a strong likelihood that the courts may rule against us, causing us to pay significant attorneys fees for the other side.

“So we said, ‘OK, we surrender,’” he said.

Not exactly doing the right thing for the right reasons… but we’ll take it!

Congratulations to the Atheists for Human Rights for losing their way to victory.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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