When Rodney Michael Rogers learned local bureaucrats had agreed to allow him to perform state-sanctioned wedding ceremonies, the retired electrician wasn’t about to praise the Lord.
Rogers is part of an increasingly vocal group of atheists across America who believe in matches made without heaven. They’re creating a new type of irreligion by uniting godlessness with the trappings of church.
“There are some people who don’t believe in any gods, ghosts or goblins,” said Rogers, 71, a member of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area’s atheist community. “There are people out there who believe they want a little more personal wedding ceremony that could not be found at a justice of the peace.”
Rogers’ congregation is called Atheists for Human Rights, and last fall it sued Washington County, Minnesota, officials to let Rogers perform government-sanctioned wedding ceremonies, just like church ministers do.
And why not, the group argued. They hold regular meetings in a geodesic dome with windows that form a giant “A.” They collect offerings for a “moral high ground fund.” They oppose doctrines that harm innocent people. And they share a peace-seeking moral creed.
“We join with liberal religionists who share this moral sense,” says the group’s statement of principles, submitted as evidence in a federal lawsuit seeking to compel Washington County to issue Rogers a permit to officially marry couples.
It so happens that atheist congregations have arisen all over God’s nonkingdom.
Across town, the Minneapolis branch of a self-described “atheist church” dubbed Sunday Assembly meets every second Sunday in a local Unitarian sanctuary. There are Sunday Assembly groups in 187 communities across the globe, holding services where parishioners “sing songs, connect for service projects, and generally celebrate the wonder of this one life,” according to Sunday Assembly’s publicity materials.
It wasn’t so much that atheists were lined up waiting to get married by a fellow nonbeliever. But to members of Atheists for Human Rights, it didn’t seem fair that nonfollowers also couldn’t perform state-sanctioned weddings. So last fall, Rogers entered the recorder’s office in Washington County asking for credentials to perform wedding ceremonies.
“As soon as I said it was for an atheist organization, the smiles kind of disappeared,” Rogers said.
In an ensuing lawsuit, Atheists for Human Rights claimed that the county violated constitutional guarantees against government establishment of religion by refusing to give Rogers credentials. The complaint became national news after last October’s filing.
What didn’t make the papers: Rogers’ attorney followed up by submitting exhibits suggesting Atheists for Human Rights has more in common with churches than do some government-recognized faiths.
Rogers, for instance, has a filigree-bordered, calligraphy-font certificate from Atheists for Human Rights authorizing him to perform weddings – just as one might find on a pastor’s wall. Also in the court file: photographs of the dome and its “A” window, copies of newsletters, and a meeting calendar.
“It is absurd to give (a preferred position to) the Church of Satan, whose high priestess avows that her powers derive from having sex with Satan, and the Universal Life Church, which sells credentials to anyone with a credit card,” according to the September-October edition of the group’s newsletter, “The Moral Atheist.”
Local bureaucrats quietly backed down last month by submitting a letter to the court. That leaves no remaining obstacles to Rogers officially performing wedding ceremonies, a county official said in a letter to Rogers’ attorney.
Maria Alena Castle, Atheists for Human Rights’ communications director, is unimpressed. She said in an email that her group will press for a broader ruling against any “religious test for non-court personnel to solemnize marriages.”
Rogers, for his part, isn’t against the godly marriage ceremonies in concept or in practice.
“My wife was a born-again Baptist,” said Rogers, an atheist since his teens. “It contributed to the reason she wanted a divorce.”
While Rogers doesn’t believe he has to live by edicts from the heavens, he does see a need for morality based in community.
“Whether you like it or not, we’re part of a village. We have to make society function,” he said. “I don’t believe any God or gods exist. But you do need some kind of social cohesion.”
Another habit he shares with many people who claim allegiance to organized religion: Rogers attends services only occasionally.
“That dome structure is way on the opposite side of town. I’d have to slog through rush hour to get there,” he said. “That applies to where they like to meet in a restaurant, too. It’s just not easy to get to.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.
Matt Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.