It didn’t take long for Washington County to reject Rodney Rogers’ request to register for the right to preside at civil marriage ceremonies.
“The lady behind the counter had a big smile on her face,” Rogers, 71, of Woodbury, recalled. “They wouldn’t even give me an application. She told me they had been instructed not to receive applications from atheist groups.”
Turned down in September, Rogers and his organization, Atheists for Human Rights, have filed a federal lawsuit against Washington County. “If we don’t win this, there’s something wrong,” said Marie Alena Castle, the group’s communications director.
Under state law, anyone who performs a marriage ceremony must first register with a county, submitting a certificate or letter stating that their organization has authorized them to conduct the ceremonies. They can then preside over marriage ceremonies anywhere in the state.
Susan Tice, assistant Washington County attorney, confirmed that her county turns away all applicants who try to register as an atheist group.
She cited a state law that allows judges or court administrators to officiate at weddings, as well as “a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination.”
Hennepin, Anoka and Ramsey counties all have registered atheists to perform marriages, but Tice said the law is clear enough. “There has been a determination at Washington County that atheists are not ministers of any religious denomination, so they do not meet the requirements of the statute,” she said.
Indeed, a review of records showed that the county has revoked three applications, two from atheist groups and another from “The Church of Spiritual Humanism.” After one of the revocations, Castle said her group sent Rogers in to register and he was summarily rejected.
Steve Gransee, manager of the county’s taxpayer services division, said the county attorney’s office had directed his staff to reject applications from any group that says it is humanist or atheist.
“If you don’t want to believe in a higher power, that’s great, no problem,” County Attorney Pete Orput said Friday. “But [the atheists’] argument is that being an atheist is a creed. I argue that a creed is a belief in something and their view is somewhat of a nihilist’s. You can’t call that a religion. Belief in nothing is not a religion.”
‘Spaghetti Monster’ passes
Castle contends that it is hypocrisy that people can go online and in seven minutes get a certificate stating that they are ordained as a minister, then use the certificate to get registered in Washington County, while atheist organizations are automatically turned away.
The county does not investigate groups to determine if they are religious or not, Tice said. “We don’t look [to see] if it is authentic or a sham,” she said. “I don’t think we can. We accept what it says it is.”
A search of the county’s files found it has registered two people who presented certificates stating that they’d been ordained by “The Church of the Latter Day Dude.”
On June 19, Nicolas W. Meurett of Hudson, Wis., registered with a “certificate of ordination” from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Meurett, 40, a chef, said in an interview that he considers the Spaghetti Monster church group “intelligent satire” and that he and his 16-year-old son joined it last year in reaction to U.S. school districts that teach creationism.
“I usually tell people I am an atheist because it is easier to understand,” Meurett said.
The first time the county got such an application, the county’s Gransee said, the staff member at the counter asked him whether to register the person. Gransee told her to go ahead. “Are you kidding me?” the staffer asked Gransee.
Other counties OK atheists
Anoka, Ramsey and Hennepin counties all have registered members of Atheists for Human Rights.
“We don’t have a policy or list of any organization that we bar,” said Chris Burns, public information officer for St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health.
In Hennepin County, Kathy Schons, service center division manager, said: “If we think it is a legitimate document, we are going to file it on their behalf.”
“Legitimate” appears to cover a wide range of groups, based on the Star Tribune’s review of several hundred applications approved by Hennepin County this year, including atheist groups, local churches and an assortment of online organizations including the churches of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Latter Day Dude.
Told that Washington County bars atheists because they are not a religious group, Anoka County vital statistics supervisor Sue Anderson said: “Who am I to determine if they are a religious organization? I am more interested that they meet the requirements.”
Those include documentation that their group has authorized them to preside at marriage ceremonies.
Services? Happy hour
The Atheists for Human Rights group does not hold services, but the group does observe a weekly happy hour at Ol’ Mexico restaurant in Roseville on Monday nights.
Last Monday, about 10 atheists were eating, drinking and exchanging stories. Among them was their attorney and board member Randy Tigue, a longtime civil liberties attorney who filed the federal suit. Tigue said he recognizes that Washington County says it is upholding a state statute. “I want the law declared unconstitutional,” Tigue said.
Bills that would permit members of atheist and humanist groups to perform marriage ceremonies were introduced in the Legislature last session by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis. Neither bill got far.
Marty expects a federal court to rule Minnesota’s law unconstitutional. He said he’ll reintroduce his bill next year, “but the courts may beat us to the punch.”
Until then, Orput will hold firm. “Until the legislators change the law, I feel I am obligated to uphold and defend Minnesota statutes,” he said.
Castle’s group is seeking a temporary injunction to force the county to allow it to register openly as atheists. “If we lose this case,” she said, “we will set up the Church of the Smoke and Mirrors.”