Literata Hurley is now officially authorized to perform marriages in Virginia.
That should be an unexceptional fact. After all, hundreds of clergy across the commonwealth are able to do the same thing. But Hurley is a high priestess of the Wiccan faith, and she found the approval process for wedding officiants to be less than welcoming.
Hurley went the Arlington County Courthouse a few months ago to register with the circuit court so that she can preside at marriages. Officials there, however, were reluctant to allow her to do so.
“I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501(c)(3) status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me,” recalled Hurley in a blog post. “Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, ‘So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?’ I said, ‘Yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors.’ (Wicca is, after all, an Earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation.)
“She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson,” Hurley continued. “Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, ‘Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.’ I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his ‘discretion’ and that he didn’t ‘feel’ I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.”
Not one to take no for an answer, Hurley turned to the Americans United Legal Department for help. AU attorneys Alex Luchenitser and Ben Hazelwood fired off a letter to Ferguson on Sept. 6 explaining that the government is not allowed to play favorites when it comes to religion. Discrimination among faiths violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
“Please grant Priestess Hurley a license and end your policy of denying the applications of ministers who do not serve fixed-address congregations,” wrote Luchenitser and Hazelwood. “To be constitutional any policy concerning licenses to perform marriages must not discriminate against any non-traditional religion.”
Arlington officials apparently saw the wisdom in Americans United’s legal advice. On Oct. 22, Hurley returned to the courthouse and obtained her license.
“I’m delighted,” said Hurley in a follow-up blog post, “to have my official recognition, of course, but this was never just about me. It’s small steps like this that break new ground along the path to full recognition, where Wicca and other Pagan religions are afforded the full benefit of equal treatment under the law.”
Hurley thanked all of those who helped in her quest.
“I would like to particularly thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, especially Ben Hazelwood, who worked with me directly,” she said. “They sent the letters that showed the Arlington County Court in no uncertain terms that their actions were legally indefensible and got the court to clarify its requirements so that I could make this reapplication successful.”
Hurley added, “I hope this makes it easier for clergy of any non-traditional religion to get credentialed.”
I hope so, too. It is a cardinal rule of American government that no preference shall be given to one denomination over others. This is a small but important victory for the religious liberty rights of minority faiths.
A time may come when there is a clearer separation between civil marriage and religious marriage. The current set-up tends toward church-state entanglements. But until then, we need to make sure that everyone is treated with equality and fairness.