A Washington County manager's refusal to register an atheist seeking to solemnize marriages has led to a lawsuit contesting Minnesota law as unconstitutional.
Atheists for Human Rights (AFHR) and Rodney Michael Rogers allege that state law and county policy deprived the organization and Rogers of "equal protection of laws" guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. Their suit also said that "content-based discrimination" violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
"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," Golden Valley attorney Randall Tigue wrote on behalf of AFHR.
Attorneys for the county responded by saying that employees had to follow state law and said the atheist organization had acknowledged that online: "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."
Rick Hodsdon, an assistant county attorney, said he didn't see any allegations in the complaint that the county had misinterpreted the law. The state isn't named as a defendant.
"This is an orchestrated effort to use Washington County as a test case," Hodsdon said Thursday.
According to the suit:
On April 15, an AFHR representative was granted a certificate of ordination to perform marriage ceremonies at the county government building in Stillwater. Three days later, Taxpayer Services division manager Steve Gransee revoked the filing because "you are a member of an Atheist organization," according to an e-mail contained in the suit.
Tigue said Thursday that AFHR representatives had registered in several Minnesota counties, including Hennepin, Anoka and Stearns, but that only Washington County rejected the credentials. He said the suit is intended to remove "inherent" discrimination against celebrants who don't represent a religion.
On Sept. 2, the AFHR board of directors recognized Rogers as a "duly authorized celebrant" to solemnize civil marriages, according to the suit. The certificate was signed by Marie A. Castle, the organization's communications director.
On Sept. 4, Rogers attempted to register ministerial credentials granted him by AFHR but "was informed … the clerks had been instructed not to accept applications from any atheist or humanist organizations," the suit said.
AFHR exists for the purpose of ensuring separation of church and state, the suit said.
"As part of its activities, Plaintiff AFHR regularly issues credentials to its members to enable them to solemnize marriages," the suit said.
Washington County, in its court response, said an atheist organization "may issue any 'credentials' for any purpose to anyone" and said the county had no authority to accept "said credentials for the purposes submitted."
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.