Atheists sue for right to perform marriages

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Marriage equality is a concept that usually applies to who can get married, but now a group is demanding equality for who can perform marriages.

Marriage has always been an intersection of the civil and religious and in Michigan. The law says marriages can only be officiated by certain elected and appointed government officials, and “ministers of the gospel” or other religious practitioners.

A lawsuit filed this week in Grand Rapids Federal Court says that is just not fair.

>>PDF: Read the full lawsuit

“So as long as you’re religious or affiliated with any religious organization in Michigan, that’s all that’s required,” said Jennifer Beahan, Center for Inquiry executive director.

The Center for Inquiry is a national organization that advocates for a secular society with an office in metro Grand Rapids.

 “We have and organized system of beliefs that’s called ‘secular humanism,’” Beahan said.

The group is suing the Kent County Clerk’s office on behalf of all of Michigan saying its trained members should be allowed to officiate weddings.

“You know how important weddings are to people and to families, it’s a major life event and secular individuals should be able to celebrate that in a way that they want that’s most memorable and meaningful to them,” Beahan said.

While people who don’t want to have a religious wedding can head to city hall or the courthouse, this group says that is still hardly equal.

“You have to do it on their schedule, they provide you a copy of the vows that they read for you and you don’t get to have it at the place of your time and choosing, you don’t get to personalize it,” Beahan said.

Some people also get ordinations offered by groups like Quaker-affiliated Humanist Society, the Universal Life Church or more farcical organizations like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Church of the Latter Day Dude – inspired by the movie The Big Lewbowski.

“But that’s a loophole, I shouldn’t have to do that because it’s basically saying that I have to play (and) act that I’m religious,” she said.

The group said they talked to legislators in Michigan, many of whom agreed with them but feared the political blowback if they were to introduce such a measure, so CFI filed the suit.

The group has had success in other states like Indiana where the courts sided with them after a fight by the attorney general there, who said that allowing just anyone to perform marriage would diminish what many hold to be a sacrament.

“You can’t say theirs is special because that’s a special right, and we’re guaranteed that freedom of religion and freedom from religion in the Constitution,” Beahan said. “Really, this is about opening this up for everybody.”

CFI says if they prevail, they will provide training for those who want to perform secular ceremonies open to anyone who agrees not to discriminate.

“Our celebrants are trained that they don’t discriminate, that they’ll do things fairly and appropriately, legally they’re not allowed to do that simply because we’re not a religious organization,” she said.

The Kent County Clerk’s office said in an email Friday that they have yet to see the suit and will reserve comment until at least then.

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