It’s Valentine’s Day and it seems appropriate to write about the business of love in Nevada.  Just as the holiday has a more complicated history than a card company’s campaign, (there is the feast day of the Christian St. Valentine and the ancient pagan fertility festival Lupercalia) so too is one’s wedding day more complicated than just saying “I do.”

Naturally, planning to marry requires a great many decisions, some financial, some spiritual, but all very personal. One of the most personal decisions could be deciding who will officiate the public ceremony when two people commit their lives to each other. Many would prefer that person to be someone they are familiar with and respect, perhaps their spiritual guide.

One couple in Nevada is fighting to have the ceremony officiant of their choice. Claire Lichtenstein and Wesley Wertz are planning their wedding but are unable to find just the right person to marry them. They wish to be married by a nongovernmental individual in a nonreligious ceremony. However, because Nevada Revised Statutes dictate that only a minister or a judge can officiate a wedding ceremony, they cannot.    

Under this law, Clark County has denied permission to officiate a wedding to individuals who are not ministers or judges. Three of them, Raul Martinez, an atheist, has been denied an officiant certificate twice. Michael Jacobson, a humanist, has also been denied, and Paula Newman, a notary public, declined even applying for a certificate because she believes her application will be rejected as well.  

Some people might say, “What’s the big deal?” But when my then-fiancé and I planned our wedding, we wanted our officiant to be free of religious association. Instead of compromising our beliefs, we chose to hold a wedding ceremony with two family members leading the way. It was a deeply spiritual ceremony of commitment, honoring our own spiritual, nonreligious paths, but because neither had an officiant’s certificate, it was not legally binding. We had to allow a total stranger, a Judge, to legally marry us on another day. Because of our honest spiritual beliefs, we were denied the opportunity to be legally and contractually bound to one another by a person of our choice.

The First Amendment says that Congress cannot make a law respecting the establishment of religion and the ACLU believes that requiring one’s nongovernmental wedding officiant to be associated with a religion is a violation of this Constitutional right.  In fact, the ACLU lobbied in 2009 and 2011 to amend the state statutes to include notary publics as people who can officiate at a wedding, but we were not successful.

On behalf of the five Nevadans mentioned earlier, the ACLU of Nevada filed suit in 2011 arguing that requiring religious affiliation to perform a marriage is unconstitutional. The ACLU of Nevada is hopeful that the judge will find that respected people unassociated with a church will also be allowed to lead a couple through a legally binding marriage.  

As for me and my husband, every year we celebrate our anniversary on the date of our own ceremony, not the legally binding ceremony, for this is the day our journey together officially began.

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