In a unique case of discrimination, Sikhs in Virginia are challenging a state law that fines non-clergy who perform wedding ceremonies:
Four Sikh men are suing the state after they were charged $500 each to preside over weddings because the law only recognizes ordained ministers, like priests and rabbis, as having the power to wed people.
However, Sikhs don’t have a clergy. Instead, anyone who can read and comprehend Sikh scriptures is qualified to perform marriages. That means a hefty fee for any Sikh looking to perform a wedding.
Obviously, the law, which was last updated in 1981, was established on a premise that all faiths that have ministers or priests. However, the Sikh faith, among others, does not have a formal priestly class or clergy, which makes the law discriminatory. This aspect is not lost on some state officials within Virginia:
The Sikhs may have an ally in the lawyer representing the state, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is refusing to defend the $500 fee.
“Distinguishing … between marriage officiants representing religious societies that do not appoint ministers and officiants representing religious societies that do appoint ministers violates petitioners’ federal and state constitutional rights,” state Solicitor General Duncan Getchell wrote to the court.
At the same time, the state of Virginia is forcing faith groups that do not have established wedding officiants as part of their practice to do so in order to avoid the fee:
Cuccinelli’s office, however, said the state is within its authority to restrict the number of people in a religious organization who can oversee a marriage.
“This requirement imposes no substantial burden on their religious exercise, favors no religion or non-religion, and substantially, and narrowly, advances the commonwealth’s interests in the regulation of the marital estate,” Getchell wrote.
For the state to confer special rights or privileges to certain people runs contrary to the Sikh ethos of equality. The imposition of such a regulation that discriminates against specific religious groups is also met with objection by the American Civil Liberties Union. It will be interesting to see how the Virginia legal system resolves this case.
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