December 2012 Church & State | People & Events

A Wiccan priestess in Virginia who was denied the right to perform wedding ceremonies won a reversal of that ruling after intervention by Americans United.

F.A. “Literata” Hurley visited the Arlington County Courthouse earlier this year to register with the court so she could preside at weddings. Hurley didn’t expect any difficulties since clerics from a wide range of faiths are registered to serve as wedding officiants.

But an official there refused to register Hurley.

“I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501(c)(3) status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me,” Hurley wrote in a subsequent blog post.

She added, “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.)”

Hurley added that the official left and returned with Court Clerk Paul Ferguson. Ferguson told Hurley that she would not be approved because her congregation does not have a building and for other reasons.

“I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied,” wrote Hurley. “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.”

Hurley contacted Americans United’s Legal Department and asked for help.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Madison Fellow Ben Hazelwood prepared a letter to Ferguson, 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, they pointed out.

“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.”

County officials quickly came around. On Oct. 22, Hurley returned to the courthouse and obtained her license.

In a follow-up blog post, Hurley wrote, “I’m delighted 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 wrote. “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.”