The issue of how to define religion came to the forefront of the news in Clay County, Minnesota, Sunday, where a new $20 fee was instituted for all filing of ordination credentials with the county. While the new fee reverses the long-established trend of charging no fee for the filing of ordination credentials, the action refrains from constraining the definition of eligible religions to mainline Christian traditions, reflecting protections granted by the First Amendment.
While this move is good news for those of us who invoke the First Amendment in defending freedom of and from religion, it illustrates the controversial status of many minority religions as well as the potential of an unconstitutional bias towards mainline churches which squeezes smaller religions out of the picture. Clearly, many of the laws which govern the United States are not in place to cater to the majority, but rather to protect the minority in affairs which do not involve the majority, and this fact is what stirs the ire in many critics of minority-faith clergy, including atheists, who get the go-ahead to file their ordination credentials.
The controversial nature of clergy from myriad faiths filing their credentials alongside Catholics and Protestants is highlighted by the fact that Clay County Recorder Bonnie Rehder was forced to pose the rhetorical question, “Who are we to say which religion is legitimate and which one isn’t?” according to Dave Olson of INFORUM. The objections many mainline churches have towards these credential filings reflect an apprehension over the ease and accessibility of the ordination process in the associated churches. As Olson reports, “In 2009, about a dozen people filed credentials that appeared to come from Web sites like the one maintained by the Universal Life Church of California, which issues credentials after asking for a minimum of information from would-be ministers.” Clergy belonging to mainline churches might understandably feel offended by Clay County honoring these easily-obtained credentials, considering the long and arduous academic work such clergy take on in their own churches to qualify as a legally ordained minister. However, the First Amendment does not define a religion as an organization in which prospective ministers must undergo rigorous academic training to earn their ordination credential.
Indeed, the definition of a valid, qualifying organization whose clergy apply to have their credentials filed is rather murky and amorphous. As Olson reports, “Rehder said workers [who file credentials in Clay County or anywhere else] have no means of challenging the legitimacy of someone’s religion, a term whose meaning, she said, is hard to pin down”. But perhaps such amorphousness in the definition of religion allows traditionally overlooked or marginalized groups the legal right to do ministerial work, as perform wedding ceremonies, for those who reject mainline churches and their doctrines. One example is that of Charles Kesler, an atheist who filed his credential from the Universal Life Church Web site with Clay County. “My main motivation”, Olson reports Kesler as saying, “was friends and associates that wanted to get married, but don’t really follow the Roman Catholic or Christian ways”. Atheists such as Kesler merely seek the right to perform wedding ceremonies through a non-denominational religion, which, of course, the United States federal government cannot invalidate without violating the religious neutrality dictated by the First Amendment.
Even if Kesler did not go through Universal Life Church to obtain his ordination credential, atheism itself may qualify as a religion anyway: as David Rosman suggests in his column in the Columbia Missourian, atheism is ” a theological, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of human kind”, meeting the criterion of religion formulated by religious philosopher and blogger Kile Jones. Thus, any jurisdiction, and not just the tiny county of Clay, would have to recognize an ordination credential from an atheist organization as well as, for example, an evangelical Christian one.
It is a relief that we still have the First Amendment in place to settle this potential problem for us once and for all. Being a non-denominational and ecumenical church, Universal Life Church Monastery understands the rights of ordained ministers to perform their work regardless of which religion they subscribe to. The fact that non-traditional ordination still ruffles the feathers of more conservative churches forces us to maintain vigilantly that every church has the right to recognize its ministers as it chooses, and that such individuals qualify equally with any other to perform legally the rites of his or her church.