In a city launched by shotgun weddings and quickie divorces, and which offers the chance to be wed by faux Liberaces, King Tuts and Grim Reapers, there remains at least one nuptial taboo: You can’t be married by an atheist.
Michael Jacobson, a 64-year-old retiree who calls himself a lifelong atheist, tried this year to get a license to perform weddings. Clark County rejected his application because he had no ties to a congregation, as state law requires.So Jacobson and attorneys from two national secular groups — the American Humanist Assn. and the Center for Inquiry — are trying to change things. If they can’t persuade the state Legislature to rework the law, they plan to sue.
Jacobson, who spends most afternoons reading online or dining at a nearby buffet, is an admittedly reluctant plaintiff. But he’s willing to fight on principle, recalling one time he couldn’t: In the 1960s, the Army demanded that his dog tags note his religion. He reluctantly chose Judaism, which reflected his ancestry if not his beliefs.
“One of the things I like to do is stand up and say I’m a nonbeliever, so you know you’re not alone,” he said recently.
For years Mel Lipman, a friend of Jacobson’s and president of the American Humanist Assn., had presided over nonreligious weddings in Las Vegas. But he belonged to the Humanist Society, a secular branch of the Humanist Assn., whose tax status as a religious group satisfied the clerk’s requirements.
When Lipman and his wife moved to Florida this spring, Jacobson — a balding man with a thin, white mustache and a trace of his native Philadelphia in his voice — decided to become the local atheist celebrant.
“But I’m not going to do it by saying I belong to a religious organization,” he said. “That’s a sham, because atheists are not religious.”
Jacobson filled out an application to perform marriages, but sidestepped the questions on religion. County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre said she had little choice but to reject it.
As Nevada law requires, all of the county’s 2,500 or so licensed officiants are connected to a congregation — though some are as small as two people, Parraguirre said. (Judges and commissioners of civil marriages can also lead ceremonies.)
Some of the state’s regulations hark back to the 1960s, when ministers were dumping their flocks to become wealthy “Marrying Sams,” according to the book “Las Vegas: An Unconventional History.” One would-be officiant apparently hoped to marry enough people to finance his divorce.
Lawmakers, trying to ferret out the profit-hungry, said weddings must be among a minister’s “incidental” duties. Drive past the string of neon-lighted downtown chapels, and you’ll see that didn’t quite pan out.