Minnesota atheists scored a victory for equal treatment even though a federal judge tossed out their lawsuit against Washington County on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen dismissed the suit Atheists for Human Rights brought against the county after it refused to allow its members to perform civil marriages.

But 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.

She noted that the county had filed an affidavit and sent a letter to the atheists’ attorney, Randall Tigue, declaring “a new permanent policy,” she wrote. In the letter, assistant Washington County Attorney Richard Hodsdon said his office had found that “other major counties” let atheists preside at marriages.

In its letter to Tigue, the county said that the Minnesota attorney general’s office “had declined the request to participate in this litigation.”

“As a practical matter it clearly means that atheists are free to solemnize marriages anywhere in the state,” Tigue said.

He expressed disappointment, however, that Ericksen declined to examine the constitutionality of the state statute that the county had cited in refusing atheists.

The atheist group sued after one of its members, Rodney Rogers, 71, of Woodbury tried to register for the right to preside at weddings.

Washington County turned him down.

The county’s change in policy came four days after the Star Tribune published an article about the suit and reported that Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties certified atheists to conduct weddings.

Meanwhile, Washington County had registered people belonging to groups with tongue-in-cheek names, including the “Church of the Latter Day Dude” and the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

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.

Atheists for Human Rights had also wanted Ericksen to declare unconstitutional the state statute giving members of religious organizations the right to preside at weddings.

But citing legal precedents, Ericksen wrote that the constitutionality of the statute “has become an abstraction untied to any live dispute between the parties. The Court declines to opine on this abstract matter of constitutional law.”


Twitter: @randyfurst