Saturday, January 02, 2016

Suit Challenges Requirement of Marriage License For Religious Ceremony

While it might seem that the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision last June mooted the many pending cases seeking to make inroads into now invalid bans on same-sex marriage, the Detroit News reported yesterday on a lawsuit that shows this is not universally so.  A year ago, Detroit minister Neil Patrick Carrick filed a lawsuit in Michigan federal district court challenging two Michigan statutes which at that time effectively fined clergy for performing same-sex marriages. (See prior posting.) MCL Sec. 551.14  imposes a $500 penalty on any member of the clergy or other person who "knowingly joins any persons in marriage" in violation of Michigan law. MCL Sec. 551.106 provides that : "Any clergyman or magistrate who shall join together in marriage parties who have not delivered to him a properly issued license ... shall be adjudged guilty of a misdemeanor" and fined $100 or sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The complaint (full text) in Carrick v. Snyder, (ED MI, filed 1/12/2015). alleged that these provisions violate the 1st Amendment free exercise and expressive association rights of clergy whose faith and religious beliefs allow them to perform marriages that are not authorized by civil law.  In May 2015, the district court entered an order holding the case in abeyance as the Supreme Court considered the issue of same-sex marriage.  In September, after the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision, the district court reactivated the case (Order lifting stay).  While the challenged statutory provisions no longer totally bar same-sex marriages, they still threaten clergy with fines if they "join in marriage" a couple that has not obtained a marriage license.  On December 8, the district court, seeking to avoid the constitutional question, issued an Order (full text) calling for additional briefing on whether these penalties under state law apply to "purely private ceremonies that are not intended to give legal effect to a marriage."

Plaintiff's attorney pointed out the importance of the issue to "elderly or widowed couples who want to marry, but are afraid they will lose their Social Security benefits if they are legally wed."