You Got Your State in My Church! Well, You Got Your Church in My State!

You Got Your State in My Church! Well, You Got Your Church in My State! June 30, 2012

Frankly, I don’t care if Count Olaf is ordained

Over in the Pagan Channel here at Patheos, I found an interesting religious liberty case.  Literata Hurley is a Wiccan priestess, and she is trying to get the state of Virginia to allow her to officiate at weddings.  Unlike a lot of states, who let pretty much anyone get ‘ordained’ online through the Universal Life Church, Virginia has standards for what it really means to be a religious leader.  Not particularly well defined standards, mind you, but, y’know, standards.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).

She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Now, when I read this story, all I can think is: Why on earth would Virginia bureaucrats want to ever be in the situation where they get asked ‘Is this religious-y enough to be a religion? From a civil point of view, the state doesn’t care what religious ceremonies you’ve got to go along with your marriage license.  They don’t care if you’ve got a dispensation for marrying an unbaptized person, they don’t care if you have the permission of your intended’s parents, they don’t care if your officiant is secretly an atheist.  The state only cares if you satisfy the legal requirements of the relevant jurisdiction.  That’s a matter for the court clerk, not the person performing the wedding.

There’s no reason for the state to get muddled in the sacred side of things.  Civil marriage and religious marriage are different institutions and ought to be treated as such.  There’s no reason for Literata or any religious leader to serve the functions of the state.  They should no more sign off on marriage certificates than they do on drivers licenses.

This kind of church-state fuzziness causes problems when a state employee is suddenly called upon to review the validity of Literata’s religious calling or to define exactly what a ‘church’ is.  It’s hard to treat unfamiliar groups fairly, especially when some political groups are working just within the state definitions of ‘religion’ in order to claim conscience objections to anti-piracy law.  As much as possible, the state shouldn’t create laws that will ask them to adjudicate theological questions.

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