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Language on LaSalle County Marriage Certificates Ms. Corretto: I am writing to inform you of a serious constitutional concern that has been brought to our attention by a local resident. It is our understanding marriage certificates issued by the LaSalle County Clerk refer to the marriage as being “According to the Ordinance of God” (as well referring to the year the marriage was performed as “in the Year of Our Lord _________”). It is our further understanding that the county requests couples to designate on their marriage license that they had either a “religious” or “civil ceremony.” The American Humanist Association is a national nonprofit organization with over 10,000 members and 20,000 supporters across the country, including in Illinois. Our purpose is to protect one of the most fundamental legal principles of our democracy: the constitutional mandate requiring separation of church and state, embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 Generally speaking, the Supreme Court has held that any governmental “practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause,” must not among other things, “advance . . . religion.” County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 590 (1989). Specifically, the government “may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization . . . [or] discriminate among persons on the basis of their religious beliefs.” Id. Courts “pay particularly close attention to whether the challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of [unconstitutionally] „endorsing‟ religion.” Id. at 591. Endorsement includes “conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” Id. at 593. Not only may the government not advance, promote,
The very first sentence of the Bill of Rights mandates that the state be secular: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This provision, known as the Establishment Clause, “builds[s] a wall of separation between church and State.” Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878).
affiliate with, endorse, prefer or favor any particular religion, it “may not favor religious belief [in general] over disbelief or adopt a preference for the dissemination of religious ideas.” Id.2 Turning to the LaSalle County Clerk‟s particular practice, the certificates issued by the clerk‟s office describe marriages performed in LaSalle County as being “in accordance with the ordinance of God.”3 By making this statement on its official form, the County Clerk necessarily expresses the following religious beliefs inherent therein: (1) the “God” referred to exists, (2) there are not many gods but rather just this one “God,” (3) this God has established laws governing marriages, and (4) this particular marriage is in compliance with those supposed godly laws. By making these official4 religious statements, the clerk “advances,” “promotes,” “endorses,” “favors” and “affiliates itself with” these monotheistic religious views in violation of the Establishment Clause (as summarized in Allegheny above). The government is legally barred from taking religious positions or promoting certain religious views. Second, the monotheistic religious views expressed on the marriage certificate are not a noncontroversial message that all can embrace: atheists and agnostics (who constitute more than 16% of the American population)5, as well as nontheists (such as many Buddhists), do not believe in the existence of any god or gods; polytheists (such as Hindus and many pagans) believe there are many gods; deists (such as a great many of America‟s Founding Fathers) reject organized religion and miracles but believe in a God who created the Universe and then withdrew, not intervening in the world (and who therefore did not announce any laws regarding marriage). Those who do not believe that their marriage is “according to the ordinance of God” should not have to encounter a statement to the contrary on an official government form. Third, the clerk has arbitrarily made religion a part of the marriage license by requiring couples to select that they had either a “religious” or “civil ceremony.” The institution of marriage is, as a legal matter, purely civil in Illinois, and therefore there is no governmental reason for requesting this information. See People v. Schuppert, 217 Ill.App.3d 715, 719 (Ill. App. 5 Dist. 1991) (stating that “marriage is a civil contract between three parties, the husband, the wife, and the State itself”). Indeed, the Illinois “statutes governing the formalities for a
The Court in Allegheny noted that “[p]erhaps in the early days of the Republic [the words of the Establishment Clause] were understood to protect only the diversity within Christianity, but today they are recognized as guaranteeing religious liberty and equality to . . . the atheist . . .‟” See also Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (holding that the “First Amendment requires governmental neutrality between . . . religion and nonreligion”) and McCreary infra (holding that the Establishment Clause “protect[s] adherents of all religions, as well as those who believe in no religion at all”). 3 Similar objections apply with equal force to the use of the phrase “in the Year of Our Lord” on the certificate as the use of the phrase “according with the ordinance of God,” with the added objection that the “Lord” referred to can only be Jesus (by virtue of the dating convention). No reference to A.D. is necessary as no one will assume the marriage was celebrated more than four thousand years ago. 4 These certificates are not simply a private keepsake. The Supreme Court of Illinois has held that “[t]he general policy of the statute [requiring marriage licenses to be obtained from the county clerk], is not only to encourage marriages, but to encourage their celebration in the manner prescribed, so that they may be, in a measure, public, and capable of proof by the registry or the certificate on file in the clerk‟s office, or a certified copy thereof.” Gilbert v. Bone, 64 Ill. 518, 1872 WL 8360, 2 (Ill. 1872). A marriage certificate provides more than just a symbolic representation of a loving and enduring relationship between two individuals; it is also a vital legal instrument that certifies the existence of their marriage. See e.g. Spencer v. Spencer, 147 N.Y.S. 111 (Sup 1914) 5 According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life center study, 16% of Americans are atheist, agnostic or otherwise have no religion.
marriage do not differentiate between a marriage performed by a judicial officer, a marriage performed by a public official, or a marriage performed with the prescriptions of any religious denomination . . .” Id. at 718. Because there is no legal distinction between a “religious” and “civil ceremony,” the county is without authority to request this information.6 Citizens have the right to keep their religious views private if they so choose. Finally, I note the Supreme Court has ruled that marriage “has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men . . . [It] is one of the „basic civil rights of man,‟ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967). Given the critical importance of this right, it is imperative that it be handled by the government in a way that is non-discriminatory and inviting to all who may legally marry. Your use of divisive religious language in official governmental documentation not only violates the Establishment Clause but also unconstitutionally deters and denigrates who do not share the views expressed in such language from exercising a fundamental legal right. Simply put, marriage is an institution that must be available for all, and so in handling it the governmental must remain neutral and secular. Private religious wedding officiants may of course continue to provide certificates of their own creation that contain any religious statements they would like. We therefore respectfully request that the LaSalle County Clerk (1) remove all religious language and references from its from its marriage certificate, license and related forms and records and (2) remove from your marriage license form any references to the religious or civil nature of the ceremony. Please notify us in writing about the steps you are taking to end this constitutional violation so that we may avoid any potential litigation. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.
William J. Burgess, Esq. Appignani Humanist Legal Center American Humanist Association
None of the relevant Illinois statutes appear to grant the officer issuing the license authority to collect this information. See IL ST CH 750 §5/202 (application for marriage shall include inter alia, name, sex, occupation, address, social security number, date and place of birth of each party to the proposed marriage); IL ST CH 750 §5/203 (requiring, inter alia, the county clerk to provide a pamphlet describing the causes and effects of fetal alcohol syndrome with the marriage license); IL ST CH 750 §5/201 (“A marriage between a man and a woman licensed, solemnized and registered as provided in this Act is valid in this State”); IL ST CH 750 §5/218 (duty of officer issuing license).
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