Statute unconstitutionally discriminates against religions,like Sikhism, that do not have ordained ministers

Fairfax County, VA – Representatives of religions that do not have ordained ministers must be permitted to perform marriages on the same basis as ministers, priests, rabbis, and other ordained clergy, Chief Judge Dennis J. Smith of the Circuit Court of Fairfax County ruled on Friday.  According to the ruling, Virginia laws that impose special requirements on religions that do not have ordained ministers are unconstitutional.
“This ruling recognizes that all religions are equal before the law,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.  “It is now up to the General Assembly to fix these statutes, which treat religions differently based on whether they have ordained clergy.”
“The General Assembly should use the opportunity afforded by this ruling to review carefully all of the laws governing the solemnization of civil marriage in Virginia,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.  “Currently, the law conflates the religious “rite” of marriage with civil marriage.  In addition to the unconstitutional religious distinctions at issue in this case, the Virginia Code makes it a crime for a faith leader to use the word “marriage” in a purely religious ceremony if the celebrants do not have a license from the state.  This is a clear violation of the First Amendment protections of religious free exercise.”
The ACLU represented four Sikh men -- two from the Sikh Foundation of Virginia and two from Singh Sabha Gurdwara – who sought authorization to perform marriages for members of their congregations.  If they were ordained ministers, the four men could obtain such authorization without posting a bond.  However, Sikhism is a non-hierarchical religion that does not have ordained clergy.   Therefore, Virginia law required each of them to post a $500 law.  The law further provides that only one person from each congregation could be authorized to perform marriages, even though a church or synagogue could have two or more ordained ministers or rabbis who could perform marriages.
Both of these requirements are unconstitutional, Chief Judge Smith ruled.  Because they treat applicants differently based on whether their religion has ordained ministers, the statutes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chief Judge Smith’s opinion can be found online at https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/20130329SinghOpinion.pdf.

ACLU of Virginia Contact: Claire G. Gastañaga, Executive Director, 804-644-8022

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National