News & Blog

Wisconsin Discriminates Against Atheist Couple Seeking to Marry

Wisconsin is discriminating against nonreligious couples by denying them the right to marry by mutual declaration, a privilege granted to religious believers.

Last week, two national secular watchdog organizations — the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and American Atheists — were contacted by a couple from Winnebago County who were refused permission to marry by mutual declaration because they were not religious.

Wisconsin’s marriage celebrant law, Wis. Stat. § 765.16, lists those who can legally solemnize marriages in the state by signing a wedding license and giving it legal effect. Other than religious officials and certain state officials such as judges, the law permits solemnization by “[t]he two parties themselves, by mutual declaration that they take each other as husband and wife, in accordance with the customs, rules and regulations of any religious society, denomination or sect to which either of the parties may belong.”

Nonetheless, these two atheist individuals, seeking to self-solemnize, were denied this right by the office of the county clerk in Winnebago.

“The couple informed us that their request to solemnize their marriage by mutual declaration had been refused because they were not religious. Instead, county officials demanded they arrange for an officiant in order to proceed with their wedding plans,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists. “Had they been religious, or if they had lied and simply said they were religious, their marriage could have proceeded as planned. Instead, merely because they are atheists, an arbitrary and discriminatory hurdle was placed in their path that religious Wisconsinites don’t face.”

Federal Courts have ruled that excluding secular celebrants from solemnizing is unconstitutional under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of Equal Protection. In 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in Ctr. for Inquiry, Inc. v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, 758 F.3d 869, that CFI-trained Secular Celebrants must be permitted to solemnize marriages in Indiana. Since then, that same ruling has been extended by litigation to Illinois, and Michigan has recently acknowledged during litigation that its legislation already permitted secular celebrants.

“This is one of the most clear-cut cases of discrimination against atheists still sullying our legal system,” stated Nick Little, CFI’s General Counsel and Legal Director. “We’ve fought this battle across the country and are willing to fight it here. We hope, though, that Winnebago County and Wisconsin’s Attorney General realize this is a case they cannot win, and allow nonreligious Wisconsinites the same rights to the wedding of their choice that their religious neighbors have.”

The letter sent to the county clerk of Winnebago County and the Wisconsin Attorney General, Josh Kaul, can be read here.