President’s Column: Marry Me Minnesota

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

Several years ago, three same-sex couples, collectively known as the organization “Marry Me Minnesota,” went to court in Hennepin County to apply for marriage licenses.  They were refused. 

They then went to Minnesota District Trial Court, suing for the right for same-sex couples to get married in Minnesota and for their own marriages, which had been legally obtained outside of Minnesota (in Vermont, Iowa, and Canada), to be recognized as valid in our state. They lost their case.

Then they went to the Minnesota Appeals Court last year.  It was at this point that Minnesota Atheists, which had been following the case, stepped in, becoming the only organization to file a friend-of-the-court brief on their behalf.

The Appeals Court handed down its decision on January 23, 2012. Below, items in quotes are excerpts from that decision. My opinions are in brackets and italics and have my initials.

In short, the Appeals Court ruled that it was proper to sue Hennepin County but not the State of Minnesota, though the appellants should have also sued the Attorney General; the appellants’ freedom of religion was not violated; but the rest of the case will be sent back to the District Trial Court to be re-judged using different standards.

This last point was what the appellants had wanted, so they are considering this ruling to be a victory. So far so good!  We will continue to help them to win their freedom from religion and to have civil same-sex marriage legalized in Minnesota.

• “We affirm the district court’s determination that the state is not a proper party…” [to the lawsuit – AB]
“…the attorney general must be served and is entitled to be heard. But the state’s participation or degree of involvement is discretionary with the state.”

“The state does not issue marriage licenses.  Thus, while the state was entitled to be heard because there is a constitutional challenge, it was within the state’s discretion whether to exercise that right. The district court, therefore, appropriately dismissed the state.”

[It is often a legal peculiarity who should and should not be the proper parties to be sued. In this case, both Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota were sued. But the Appeals Court decided that the State is not a proper party – though the State was free to enter into the case if it wanted to (which it did not). On the other hand, the Attorney General is a proper party.  So, no doubt as this case proceeds, the Minnesota Attorney General will be added as a defendant. – AB]

“…we affirm the district court’s determination that MN DOMA does not violate the… freedom-of-association provisions of the Minnesota Constitution.”

“We next address appellants’ argument that MN DOMA violates their freedom-of-conscience rights under the Minnesota Constitution, claiming that they are not able to fully exercise their religion because even if they marry in a church, the state does not recognize their marriages.”

“… the district court then determined that ‘[t]he State’s choice to recognize opposite-sex marriages performed in churches, but not same-sex marriages is a decision within the purview of the State’s power to prohibit certain marriages without unconstitutionally interfering in religious freedoms.’ ”

“The district court’s determination that appellants’ beliefs are sincere is not challenged. The issue is whether the state action – the prohibition of same-sex marriage – burdens that belief. At least one of the three couples has been married in a church and there is no evidence that the state’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages interferes with appellants engaging in a religious marital ceremony.

Thus, the district court did not err in determining that the statute does not violate appellants’ freedom-of-conscience rights.

[Minnesota Atheists agrees with this analysis. The problem is not that people can’t have private religious ceremonies, it’s that the State should not be basing any of its laws on religion. What we pointed out in our friend-of-the-court brief was that laws that discriminate against same-sex marriage are theocratic in nature and that there is no defensible secular basis for these laws. – AB]

“But because the district court inappropriately dismissed the matter at this early stage of litigation, we reverse and remand the remaining claims.”

“…the district court erred in dismissing appellants’ equal-protection, due-process, and freedom-of-association claims on the merits at this stage in the proceedings.”
“The district court failed to address appellants’ challenges under the Minnesota Constitution. A proper analysis is necessary especially because the Minnesota rational-basis test for determining whether equal-protection rights have been violated is more stringent than the federal test.”

Thus, the Supreme Court has provided guidance since Baker indicating that moral disapproval of a class because of sexual orientation cannot be a legitimate government purpose that equal-protection requires.

[The Minnesota Appeals Court sent this case back down to the Minnesota District Trial Court, so that it can be reheard and judged using more proper standards than the District Trial Court used the first time. Previously, a 1971 Minnesota Supreme Court anti-gay-marriage case called Baker had been used. But the Appeals Court said that the Minnesota State Constitution offers more protections than the U.S. Constitution, and that since 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court has offered increasingly greater protection for gay people. – AB]

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