Anti-Atheist Discrimination in Virginia

Hemant has the story of a couple in Virginia who were told by a court-appointed marriage officiant that he would not do their wedding ceremony because they didn’t believe in God, a rather blatant and almost certainly illegal act of anti-atheist discrimination. And they got it on tape. Here’s the conversation:

Morgan: … am I speaking with Bud Roth?

Roth: This is he.

Morgan: How you doing. I just received a phone call. I guess my fiancee had called up looking to be wed in Franklin County?

Roth: Tamar?

Morgan: Yeah.

Roth: Okay, yeah.

Morgan: Okay… and why was she declined the service?

Roth: Because she’s Agnostic and you’re an atheist. I will not marry you. You don’t believe in God.

Morgan: I mean… but… so that’s your judgment on it, correct?

Roth: That’s my decision. I’m not judging you. I just don’t marry anyone who does not believe in God [or] believes that there is a God someplace. So I’m not gonna talk the issue over with you and I’m not gonna argue about it, okay? I’m just not gonna marry you. Correct?

He has a right not to perform a wedding for any reason, of course, but not if he’s an official of the court. That makes him a government official and it is illegal for him to discriminate in this manner in that position. He can’t deny a government service to an atheist couple anymore than he could a black couple. He should be removed as a court-appointed officiant immediately.

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  • Kevin Kehres

    My hypothesis is that Thomas Jefferson was so smart that he sucked all of the intelligence out of Virginia, creating a black hole of stupid that continues to grow to this day.

  • gshelley

    What about the update?

    I spoke with Judge [William N.] Alexander pertaining to this and he said that he appointed one person that performs religious ceremonies (Mr. Roth) and one person that performs civil ceremonies (Mr. Young).

    I don’t know if they told the staff that they did not want a religious ceremony or not.

    He said this was Mr. Roth’s belief and there was nothing wrong about that.

    So it seems he is just performing the job as appointed. How that can be legal, I can’t imagine

  • eric

    Virginia’s system is wierd. You must go to an officiant in addition to the county clerk (or registrar, or whatever the position is called), but AFAIK the officiants aren’t part of the civil service at all. Typically you get one or more officiants setting up shop very close to the courthouse, specifically to meet the needs of people who just want to get the license without the fuss of a ceremony. However, AFAIK (and I could be wrong about this), they are not “court-appointed” any more than any other officiant is. There is no legal difference between the guy with the office across the street from the courthouse and the priest at the local Catholic church; both are officiants, neither is ‘court appointed’ in any meaningful sense, and both can choose who they do and don’t marry. The officiants who set up shop near the courthouse are not like a court-appointed attorney, they are more like the MacDonald’s in the first floor of a government office building.

    The correct fix (IMO) is not to try and punish this guy, it’s to do away with the officiant requirement altogether. There is no rational basis for the requirement.

  • Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @Kevin Kehres:

    Hey, not all of Virginia is backwards. NoVA is increasingly embarrassed by most of the rest of the state.

  • colnago80

    The story is rather confused here. If I understand it correctly, the judge would be authorized to perform a marriage ceremony in Virginia, as is the case in most, if not all other states. Apparently, the judge here delegated his power to two individuals, one of whom is a clergyman who performs religious ceremonies and the other is someone who performs civil ceremonies. It appears to me that the couple in question did not inform the judge, or more likely his clerk, as to what kind of ceremony they wanted. If, in fact, the delegation by the judge is legal and the couple failed to inform him or his representative as to the type of ceremony they wanted, this brouhaha is a tempest in a teapot which could have been avoided by better communication.

    Having said this, Roth, the designated religious individual, was remiss in that he should have informed the couple that, as a matter of conscience, he declined to perform marriage ceremonies to non-believers. He should then have informed them that there was another individual who was available for civil ceremonies and directed them to that individual, which he apparently did not do.

    This ability also appears to include federal judges, as Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg performed a same sex marriage ceremony shortly after the Prop. 9 case.

    By the way, on Mehta’s post, someone commented erroneously on the situation in California. As I understand it, in California, certain elected officials are authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. Just after the Prop. 9 decision went down and the injunction was lifted, the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the California Secretary of State performed same sex marriage ceremonies to 3 couples.

  • colnago80

    Re @4

    You can say that again brother.

  • cry4turtles

    Virginia is (only for theist) lovers!

  • dingojack

    ‘Virginia: the hate state’


  • eric

    If I understand it correctly, the judge would be authorized to perform a marriage ceremony in Virginia, as is the case in most, if not all other states. Apparently, the judge here delegated his power to two individuals, one of whom is a clergyman who performs religious ceremonies and the other is someone who performs civil ceremonies

    Judges may be able to do it, but the rest is not quite right. Here is the state’s explanation. Clerks give you a licence, you then go to an officiant to get the ceremony done. Officiants are clergy who apply for a licence as well as other people the sytem appoints. But as I said above, it is not like a public defendent. There is no “if you cannot find an officiant, one will be provided for you.” You are not provided one; you have to go out and find your own. Good counties will probably give you a list of the nearby officiants (Arlington even gives you a map).

    The “appointment” here is not really a job or a government representation. It’s more like the local gas station being licensed to perform an emissions inspection. Now I think Ed is right in that the county could, if it wanted, make “serve all Virginians regardless of religion” one of the requirements for an appointed officiant.The real question is: if they don’t make that a requirement – if the state happily hands out appointments to people who will only marry whites or only marry straights or only marry theists – is this guy’s rejection illegal/unconstitutional?

  • whheydt

    About coinago80…

    The inflation is strong in this one. The California anti-SSM ballot proposition was Prop. *8*. (Hence the ‘No H8’ bumper stickers.)

  • colnago80

    Re whheydt @ #10

    Correction noted.

    Re eric

    Apparently, the judge delegated the power to perform marriages to 2 people, one of whom performs civil ceremonies. The couple should have indicated to whoever provided the name that they wanted a civil ceremony. It would appear that either they did not or, most likely the judge’s clerk for whatever reason sent them to the wrong person. The point here is that there was an individual in that jurisdiction who performs civil ceremonies.

    I’m not defending Roth here, he was derelict in his duties not to inform the couple that there was another individual who performs civil ceremonies and directing them to him/her. I would agree that for that reason and not because he declines to perform non-religious ceremonies, he should be relieved of his duties.

  • colnago80

    Re eric @ #9

    The bottom line here is that if the couple had been sent to the right person in the first place, none of this would have happened.

  • U Frood

    If the judge wanted to delegate his power to these other two individuals, and he knew they had restrictions on who they would perform marriages for, he should have made that clear when giving out the names.

    Seems it would have been a lot simpler to just say “Do you want me to sign the license for you?”

  • colnago80

    Re U Frood @ #13

    This was probably handled by the judge’s clerks, not the judge himself.

  • eric

    Apparently, the judge delegated the power to perform marriages to 2 people,

    No, you’re still getting it wrong. Pretty much every priest of every religion in the state has that power. In addition, the court lets other people have that power too. This is not a case of two people having some special ability to do something for that county that nobody else could do, its a case of two people getting added to an already long list. As I said, like approving another local service station to conduct emissions inspections, only in this case its approving two additional locals to conduct marriage inspections. You are putting too much emphasis on the word “delegate,”it’s not some special office or governmental appointment.

    most likely the judge’s clerk for whatever reason sent them to the wrong person.

    As the saying goes, never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. I think it’s far more likely that the clerk gave them basic contact information (name, phone #, address) for the two nearby officiants, no additional information, and they happened to randomly pick the “wrong” one. Now arguably there shouldn’t be a “wrong one” – arguably if your unofficial job is to handle all the non-ceremonial county marriages, you should be willing to handle all of them – but that is an argument for a different day.

  • colnago80

    Re eric @ #15

    I am well aware that, in Virginia, as well as every other state, priests, ministers, and rabbis (and I presume Islamic clergy), are legally entitled to perform marriage ceremonies, as are judges. In this case, it is my understanding that the judge in question had delegated his powers to 2 individuals, one of whom performs civil marriages. The bottom line is that the couple in question, for whatever reason, was sent to the wrong person. Had they been sent to the right person, none of this would have occurred.

    I agree that, given the ready availability of clergy to perform religious ceremonies, both individuals appointed by the judge should have been willing to perform civil marriage ceremonies.