Kentucky Judge Refuses To Conduct Non-Religious Wedding
After requesting a secular marriage ceremony, a couple planning to marry in Trigg County, Kentucky was shocked when a judge refused to marry them claiming he couldn’t perform the ceremony without religious context. The judge – County Judge Executive Hollis Alexander – reportedly told the couple, “I include God in my ceremonies, and I won’t do one without him.”
Mandy Heath and her fiancé Jon are atheists and are constitutionally guaranteed the right to obtain a marriage license without religious interference from government officials. The couple planned to go to the Trigg County court house prior to their wedding in order to take care of paperwork so their subsequent ceremony – the part government typically has no part in – would go smoothly.
After the couple arranged to see Alexander to complete the paperwork, the judge called them to inform them he would not perform a secular ceremony.
Alexander not only refused to assist the couple, but referred them to another county as no other county official was available to assist them in Trigg County. When contacted, Alexander’s office confirmed the story and added that he also would not marry same-sex couples.
Legally speaking, Alexander’s actions may have violated the couple’s First Amendment rights.
As a government employee, you have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral on religious matters while acting in your official capacity. You have no right to impose your personal religious beliefs on people seeking to be married. Governments in this nation, including the Commonwealth of Kentucky, are secular. They do not have the power to impose religion on citizens.
The bottom line is that by law, there must be a secular option for people seeking to get married. In Trigg County, you are that secular option. The default ceremony offered by your office should be secular and people wishing to add in religion should be able to do so upon request. Not the other way around and certainly not to the exclusion of a secular option.
Moreover, according to Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 402.050, religious ceremonies are not a requirement for government officials when conducting government-related marriage business in the state of Kentucky. While religious figures (represented in two of the three sections of that statute) may choose to include religious ceremonies as a part of the process, no where does it require government representatives to impose religious ceremonies on taxpayers who do no hold those beliefs.
Even if a Kentucky state law did require religious pretext in order to obtain a marriage license, that pretext would be unconstitutional as government – be it local, state or federal – cannot force private citizens to engage in religious conduct against their will in order to obtain government-supplied goods or services. Doing so would create a religious endorsement by that government entity, and that has repeatedly been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Looking specifically to how Kentucky County Judge/Executive roles are set up, another thing is clear (and became clear shortly after the Obergefell decision confirming same-sex couples enjoy the same legal right to marry as their opposite-sex counterparts): choice. Unlike county clerks, these elected officials are not required to perform marriage ceremonies. Legally, however, they cannot offer to perform marriage ceremonies and subsequently discriminate against taxpayers in who they will serve and how they will conduct those ceremonies (religiously speaking).
It’s unclear if the couple will sue Alexander or Trigg County for discrimination. Additionally, as of the publication of this article, Alexander has not publicly responded to FFRF’s letter seeking public assurances no other couples will be discriminated against when seeking a marriage license there.