Church sues Clark County clerk to lift marriage officiant limits

Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya, seen in 2016. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A Seattle-based church that boasts easy ordinations online is accusing the Clark County Clerk’s Office of religious discrimination for preventing its ministers from presiding over more than five legal marriage ceremonies per year.

Universal Life Church Monastery sued the county and Clerk Lynn Goya in federal court seeking to compel the Clerk’s Office to recognize the internet-based nonprofit as a religious organization — one of two key provisions backed by state law that would entitle its ministers to perform unlimited marriages in the county.

The nondenominational church is a registered foreign nonprofit corporation, according to Nevada Secretary of State records, checking off one requirement that it be organized under laws of the state. But the nonprofit has been unable to substantiate that it is a religious group in order to qualify its ministers for a Affidavit of Authority to Solemnize Marriages.

Without the affidavit, Universal Life Church’s ministers are each limited to five weddings per year.

The nonprofit, whose ministers have performed legal marriages in the county since 2006, does not maintain a brick-and-mortar presence in Nevada and has not sought tax-exempt status, proving problematic to its efforts to be recognized as a religious group.

In registering with the Nevada Secretary of State in 2008, the nonprofit described its purpose as to “promote the religious ideology” of the church, which its website says is founded on the belief that “we are all children of the same universe.”

Marc J. Randazza, the lawyer representing Universal Life Church in the lawsuit, said the government should not be in the business of interpreting what constitutes a religious organization.

“I think the government has simply made a Constitutional mistake in favoring one paradigm of religion over another,” Randazza said.

The Oct. 31 civil complaint comes in the wake of a more than two-year effort by the clerk’s office to overhaul the administration and management of its officiant licensing program in the $2.5 billion-a-year wedding industry.

Officials say they have sought to modernize hundreds of outdated officiant records, better track the 80,000 marriages performed each year and ensure compliance with state law.

In May 2016, county officials sent letters to every authorizing organization on record requesting documentation proving status as a church or religious organization. More than 600 organizations were invited to apply.

“The complaint is without merit,” Goya said in a statement. “All churches are treated the same in accordance with state law and any suggestion otherwise is simply not true.”

Universal Life Church further accuses Goya and her office of changing the requirements as the nonprofit sought two years ago to be one of more than 640 currently approved churches and religious organizations whose ministers can perform unlimited ceremonies.

The lawsuit also suggested that Goya’s alleged limitation of Universal Life Church’s ministers has been orchestrated to promote the interests of members of the Las Vegas Wedding Chamber of Commerce, with which Goya has been intimately involved. There are roughly 70 members of the nascent chamber, according to its website.

Randazza acknowledged he doesn’t possess the data to support the assertion, but he said it will be explored through the court discovery process.

“I am optimistic that we will eventually figure out that nobody here was trying to do anything evil,” Randazza said, “but discrimination against minority religions sometimes happens due to lack of familiarity.”

Founded in the early 1960s, Universal Life Church, no stranger to fighting legal battles throughout the U.S., has since the advent of the Internet age garnered a reputation for — as a 2015 New York Times piece put it — “pump(ing) out ordinations at an assembly-line pace.” Talk show host Conan O’Brien and other celebrities have been ordained through the nonprofit, representing few of the 20 million ministers the church says it has ordained since its inception.

It promotes progressive values and maintains a history of involvement in same-sex and inter-faith weddings as well as traditional marriages, according to the federal filing.

Randazza acknowledged there is an undercurrent that anyone can become a minister, but he argued “that shouldn’t matter.”

“As soon as we begin asking that question,” he said, “we’ve walked onto grounds we shouldn’t be on.”

The county and Goya, sued in her official capacity along with District Attorney Steve Wolfson — a matter of protocol in cases targeting government — have until Jan. 10 to file a formal response in court, federal records show.

Shea Johnson at sjohnson or. Follow on Twitter.

Big business

— Weddings in Clark County are a $2.5 billion a year industry

— 80,000 marriages performed each year

— More than 640 religious groups recognized by county to officiate unlimited weddings

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