Reporting from Las Vegas — In a city launched by shotgun weddings and quickie divorces, and which offers the chance to be wed by faux Liberaces, King Tuts and Grim Reapers, there remains at least one nuptial taboo: You can’t be married by an atheist.
Michael Jacobson, a 64-year-old retiree who calls himself a lifelong atheist, tried this year to get a license to perform weddings. Clark County rejected his application because he had no ties to a congregation, as state law requires.
So Jacobson and attorneys from two national secular groups — the American Humanist Assn. and the Center for Inquiry — are trying to change things. If they can’t persuade the state Legislature to rework the law, they plan to sue.
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When Lipman and his wife moved to Florida this spring, Jacobson — a balding man with a thin, white mustache and a trace of his native Philadelphia in his voice — decided to become the local atheist celebrant.
But I’m not going to do it by saying I belong to a religious organization,he said.That’s a sham, because atheists are not religious.
Jacobson filled out an application to perform marriages, but sidestepped the questions on religion. County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre said she had little choice but to reject it.
As Nevada law requires, all of the county’s 2,500 or so licensed officiants are connected to a congregation — though some are as small as two people, Parraguirre said. (Judges and commissioners of civil marriages can also lead ceremonies.)
Some of the state’s regulations hark back to the 1960s, when ministers were dumping their flocks to become wealthyMarrying Sams,according to the book Las Vegas: An Unconventional History. One would-be officiant apparently hoped to marry enough people to finance his divorce.
Lawmakers, trying to ferret out the profit-hungry, said weddings must be among a minister’sincidentalduties. Drive past the string of neon-lighted downtown chapels, and you’ll see that didn’t quite pan out.
Clark County issues nearly 100,000 marriage licenses a year and boasts dozens of places to exchange vows — atop Harley-Davidsons, in Renaissance costumes, aboard gondolas — 24 hours a day. The competition is so fierce that in recent years, employees at rival chapels have accused one another of slashing tires and shouting death threats.Someone is working at all of these chapels,said Parraguirre, whose office doesn’t have the resources to track down ministers flouting the law. In fact, she worries that if the criteria to become an officiant changes, her staff will bebombarded with people coming in and just doing it for a job.
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Judges performing ceremonies, for example, don’t have to meet religious criteria, so it’s absurd to make anyone else do so, [Lynne Henderson, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas] said. Officials could regulate celebrants in other ways, such as making them get training.
Let’s suppose it’s true that County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre’s office just hasn’t got the resources to deal with all the applications that would
bombard them if Nevada did away its mandates for state discrimination against religiously unconventional marriages. It seems to me there’s a simple solution: save County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre the work by abolishing the laws that require wedding officiants to get a license from the State in the first place. If there’s no licensure requirement, there will be no discrimination lawsuits, and also no applications to
bombard poor County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre.
If your Elvis-impersonating streetside neon-chapel minister’s motives are really focused on making a living rather than on serving the Lord, who cares? Couples who want a religiously serious wedding will presumably go to a church or temple or mosque where they can get one.
If your Starfleet-uniformed Captain of the Starship of Love hasn’t had some State-sanctioned course of
training (training in what?), who cares? Couples who want to vet their celebrants for training or competency will do so.
Even if you think that the State has some legitimate business using a licensing system to pick and choose which marriages it will or will not recognize (I don’t), what possible purpose can it serve to require not only the couple, but also the third party that they hire to officiate — whose only legal function is to witness the vows and attest that these folks mean what they say — to get specially vetted and licensed by the State? Really, seriously, bureaucratic rationality aside, who could possibly care, and why?