Barred from performing marriages, atheist group sues Washington Co.


A lawsuit asking for atheists to be given the same rights as religious organizations to perform marriage ceremonies has been filed against Washington County.

Nonprofit group Atheists for Human Rights (AFHR) issued the suit after one of its members was denied the right to perform marriages in the county in April, having previously been granted permission in Hennepin, Anoka and Stearns counties, MPR reports.

The member was initially approved by the county, only to be turned down three days later when an email from taxpayer services division manager Steven Grandsee said members of atheist organizations do "not meet the statutory requirement" of the state of Minnesota, according to the suit.

After another member, Rodney Rogers, attempted to register last month and was also rejected, AFHR filed the suit claiming that the decision of the county is unconstitutional.

According to the suit, Rogers was told by a clerk that "he could not be issued credentials to solemnize marriages because the clerks had been instructed not accept applications from any atheist or humanist organizations".

State laws under review

The AFHR, represented by attorney Randall Tigue, argues against the stance taken by the county and state law as a whole, which according to MPR only permits court personnel and representatives from religious organizations to solemnize marriages.

The bill to offer the same rights to atheists as well has been introduced in the state's Legislature, MPR adds, but has not yet passed.

Tigue argues the the current law constitutes a government establishment of religion, as well as going against equal protection of rights set out in the 14th amendment and 1st amendment free speech rights.

He told the Star Tribune: "When the statute clearly permits recognition of a marriage celebrant whose religious credentials consist of nothing more than a $20 ‘ordination’ obtained from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster … the requirement is absolutely meaningless in terms of ensuring the qualifications of a marriage celebrant."

AFHR, based in north Minneapolis, have been told by the county that employees had to follow state law, the Star Tribune reports, with attorneys telling the newspaper that they have to wait until after next month's elections before amendments to the marriage laws can proceed.

Rich Hodsdon, assistant Washington County attorney, told the newspaper the lawsuit was an "orchestrated effort to use Washington County as a test case" against Minnesota state law.

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