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Wedding ceremonies are protected under the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on August 4, 2012 Category: Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that wedding ceremonies are protected expression under the First Amendment. In Kaahumanu v. State of Hawaii, a dispute arose over regulations imposed by the State of Hawaii on the types of activities allowed on public beaches. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, public beach congestion resulting from commercial activity led Hawaiian authorities to ban the vast majority of commercial activities on public beaches unless a permit was first obtained. A wedding and event-planning organization claimed to be negatively affected by the regulations and brought suit alleging, among other things, that the regulations violate the First Amendment.

In order for an activity to be protected under the First Amendment, it must be able to be classified as “speech” or “expression.” The State argued that wedding ceremonies were not protected under the First Amendment because they are “personal, private, and non-political communication.” The court, however, disagreed. The court laid out precedent showing that the First Amendment “protects expressive conduct so long as that conduct ‘convey[s] a particularized message’ and is likely to be understood in the surrounding circumstances.” Further, the court said that “a narrow, succinctly articulable message is not required” from the conduct. With this guidance in mind, the court explained that couples often express their religious beliefs through different types of wedding ceremonies which often include religious symbols and rituals. Even secular couples, according to the court, often express their particular beliefs and commitments through wedding ceremonies. The court summed up its view on the issue by saying that “marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” and “we have no difficulty concluding that wedding ceremonies are protected expression under the First Amendment.”

The plaintiffs would go on to lose the majority of their claim, but the court’s language regarding the First Amendment issue is very important. Falling under the protection of the First Amendment means that there is very strict scrutiny that will be applied to any restrictions on wedding ceremonies, especially in the Ninth Circuit. The freedom of expression is one of our most sacred freedoms as Americans, and it appears that at least some federal courts are now willing to say the same thing about weddings. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive, nation-wide experience with Constitutional claims. If you feel that your rights are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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