Court-Appointed Marriage Commissioner Refuses to Perform Civil Ceremony for Non-Religious Couple

Tamar Courtney and Morgan Strong have been together for six years and will be getting married this summer in Virginia. They wanted a friend to officiate the ceremony but after facing some difficulties in obtaining his license, they figured they would just go to the county courthouse and take care of the legal paperwork. The formal ceremony with family and friends would just have to come at a later date.

Tamar Courtney (left) and Morgan Strong

For weeks, they tried contacting the Roanoke County Courthouse for information… to no avail. So they went to neighboring Franklin County instead. A judge there referred them to two court-appointed individuals, either of whom could perform a civil ceremony.

They contacted the first officiant, Bud Roth, and he told them he couldn’t perform the ceremony on courthouse grounds (for unknown reasons) but he could do it at his church.

Even though Tamar’s an Agnostic and Morgan’s an atheist, they just wanted to get the legal part of the ceremony over with, so they accepted his offer. After working out the cost, location, date, and time, Roth asked Tamar about the couple’s religious denomination.

She told him the truth: they weren’t religious. And that’s when Roth backed away.

Because Morgan didn’t believe in God and Tamar “didn’t know where God was,” he said they didn’t have a right to get married.

Does that sound crazy?

Morgan certainly couldn’t believe it, so he called Roth up himself to verify what his fiancee had told him… and wisely videotaped 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?

Morgan: Okay, do you know of someone who could do it with, perhaps, different views than you?

Roth: The courthouse gave you another name. Okay? They gave you two names, my name and another name. So you’ll have to talk to him, okay? I can’t answer for him.

Morgan: Okay, awesome… I suppose that’s it. Thank you for your time, brother.

To summarize: A court-appointed officiant refused to perform a civil ceremony for a couple because they didn’t believe in God.

Un-fucking-believable.

There’s at least a happy ending to this story. Tamar and Morgan contacted that other officiant and he will be performing their civil ceremony this Monday. (The formal ceremony with friends and family will be held June 29.)

They don’t want this setback to take away from what should be a wonderful time in their lives, but they’re certainly upset about it. Tamar contacted the Franklin County Clerk about it and the clerk was speechless. She suggested writing a letter to the judge letting him know what happened. Tamar will do that in the next few days.

I spoke with the couple last night over the phone and Morgan stressed to me that what bothered him the most was the way Roth treated them. If Roth had said it was uncomfortable for him to perform the ceremony as a Christian, it’d be a different story. Had Roth said he respectfully declines to perform the ceremony but would help them find someone else, again, no problem. But telling his fiancee that they don’t have the right to be married because they’re non-religious didn’t sit well with Morgan, especially since this was a court-appointed individual. He was also bothered by the nasty way Roth spoke during the phone call when he called them an atheist and Agnostic, as if there was something wrong with them.

Morgan added that everyone has the right to get married. It’s bad enough that we have to fight for marriage equality for same sex couples, he said, but were we still fighting that battle for people who weren’t Christian? He wondered if this was the first time a non-religious couple had been rejected in Franklin County. It couldn’t be, could it? And what if he were Muslim? Or Buddhist? Would Roth have rejected them then, too?

I sent an email to a county official last night asking how Mr. Roth is allowed to get away with this. I’ll post an update if/when I hear back.

In the meantime, let’s wish all the best to the soon-to-be-married couple.

***Update***: The county clerk wrote back earlier today saying:

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.

Still sounds shady to me… I don’t know how a judge can just appoint someone who can refuse to perform civil ceremonies that are otherwise legal.

(Thanks to Jacob for the lead)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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