Religious Marriages for Religions Without Official Clergy

For centuries, American law has allowed clergy to solemnize marriages, though of course judges can do it, too. But what about religions that don’t have official clergy? In re Dhanoa (Va. Cir. Ct. Mar. 29, 2013) holds unconstitutional a Virginia statute that allowed only one religious group member per “religious society” to solemnize such marriages, and required a $500 bond:

Marriages between persons belonging to any religious society which has no ordained minister, may be solemnized by the persons and in the manner prescribed by and practiced in any such society. One person chosen by the society shall be responsible for completing the certification of marriage in the same manner as a minister or other person authorized to perform marriages; such person chosen by the society for this purpose shall be required to execute a bond in the penalty of $500, with surety.

An excerpt from the court’s reasoning:

Petitioners and Respondent are in agreement that the requirement that individuals authorized under § 20-26 pay a $500 bond with surety is unconstitutional. Prior to 1981, and at the time that Cramer was decided, § 20-23 [which provides for solemnizing by clergy] and § 20-26 both required such a bond. In light of the statutory changes in 1981, Respondent “declines to defend the constitutionality of this discrimination between religious sects for purposes of solemnizing marriages under the authority of the Commonwealth.”

The Court agrees with the parties that this bond requirement is clearly unconstitutional. The General Assembly cannot favor one type of religion over another without a compelling government interest and a narrowly tailored method. Section 20-26 impermissibly burdens Petitioners’ religion when compared with celebrants from other religions who qualify under § 20-23, and thus it is not sufficiently tailored to the government’s interest. The bond requirement will therefore not be required of Petitioners and Petitioners will be authorized to perform marriage ceremonies without it….

Petitioners assert that § 20-26 permits only one person per society to be authorized to officiate at a marriage. They argue that because Dr. Ajaib Singh and Gurminder Singh Bhatti are both members of the Sikh Foundation of Virginia, and Balbir Singh and Jagtar Singh Dhanda are both members of Singh Sabha Gurdwara, at most one person from each temple can obtain court approval to perform weddings. Petitioners view this as an unconstitutional burden because, under their interpretation of the Code, if the one person who is authorized to complete the requisite paperwork is ill or out of town, no one can be lawfully married within the religious society. There is, in their view, “no good reason to prohibit organizations without ordained clergy from designating more than one person” to complete the certificate of marriage when other religions can have as many people designated as there are ordained ministers. To Petitioners, any person who is selected by their group, and who is literate, should be eligible for authorization….

This Court finds that the one person per religious society requirement of § 20-26 unconstitutionally discriminates against Petitioners on the basis of their religion. Petitioners will all be authorized without any restriction as to the number of other authorized individuals from the same religious societies, provided that they are individuals “chosen by the society” who have demonstrated that they are capable of “completing the certification of marriage in the same manner as a minister or other person authorized to perform marriages.”