If you want to marry two of your friends in Minnesota, it's easy. Like, really easy. There's a whole bevy of free options for you to peruse -- spend about a minute filling out a form to be an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, or be like Lebowski and hook up with theChurch of the Latter-Day Dude.
Grab your credentials from the awesome online church of your choice, bring it to the county government center, get yourself registered, and you're done. You are now free to wed whomever you see fit. Pretty great, right?
But wait! There's a catch. Minnesota specifies that you've got to be "a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination," meaning that except for a few exceptions, like judges and court administrators, you can't be a total non-believer (i.e. an atheist or a humanist) if you want to conduct a wedding.
"I mean, you can be from the Church of Satan! You can be some kind of high priest," says Marie Castle, the communications director for the atheist organization Atheists for Human Rights. "But just that basic, moral code, no luck."
Her organization found out the hard way. AFHR has been trying for years to get the rules changed in the state legislature. But without much success there, its members decided to just head to different counties, bring their atheist credentials, and see if they could get registered to marry.
At first, it was easy. Hennepin County allowed it with no problem at all. Then Ramsey. Then Anoka. But once one of their members reached Washington County, things didn't go quite as smoothly, says Castle.
Two times the members of AFHR went into the county's government, fresh with credentials from the organization to become a certified minister, once in April 2014 and once last month. And both times, the county shut them down, pointing to the state's rule and saying that while religious credentials may let you officiate marriages, ones from atheist or humanist groups won't grant you the same privilege.
Instead of giving up, AFHR is taking the county to court, saying the state rules violate everything from free speech to equal protection under the law. Castle says this was a kind of last resort. There's really no other choice.
"If we lose this, I'm gonna start the, the Church Of the Blessed Holy Virgin Mary With a Full Bladder," Castle laughs. "And that'll fly! That's the crazy part!"
(To hear the county's take on it, click to the next page.)
The issue shows just how bizarre one state's rules on officiating marriages can be. It's all likely unintentional, probably bred from years of bending over backward for every religious group. But the result is strange: Atheists are the only group who just wants to hold a state-sponsored marriage, nothing more. And yet they're the only ones getting denied.
"I mean, the law's just ridiculous!" Castle says. "All these online churches, they're just atheists in disguise. Have you read their beliefs? They're just as impossible as the real theology."
The whole fight has even left Washington County in a weird spot. Everyone in the case -- both the county and Atheists for Human Rights -- agrees that the county was interpreting the state's rules correctly when it denied the certificate. So now, Richard Hodsdon, the county's lawyer in the case, feels he's been hurled into a battle that really should be taken to the state level.
"This is a legislative policy," Hodsdon says. "We can't just ignore a legislative policy."
Hodsdon says he tried to make that same pitch to the state attorney general's office, but they declined to take up the case. So now he's frustrated. If Atheists for Human Rights ends up winning, it'll be Washington County's taxpayers that'll be stuck with the bill for a fight over a state rule.
"And why should they be on the hook?" Hodson says.
Like most court cases, this one's complicated, with no one really happy about any part of it. But if it works out, then say goodbye to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and hello to atheist marriages.