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Center for Inquiry Inc. v. Warren

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

August 16, 2019

JOHN F. WARREN in his capacity as Clerk of Dallas County, Texas, Defendant.



         Plaintiffs Center for Inquiry, Inc. (CFI)-a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster a secular society in part through a celebrants program offering secular marriage ceremonies-and two of its celebrants authorized by CFI to solemnize marriages, Arthur Bratteng and Eric McCutchan, bring suit asking this Court to declare unconstitutional parts of a Texas statute governing who can solemnize marriages in Texas. In sum, Plaintiffs argue the statute-by only allowing religious officiants and certain government officials to lawfully solemnize marriage ceremonies, while denying that right to secular individuals-infringes on several of their constitutional rights. Defendant in turn seeks dismissal of this suit under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) arguing that Plaintiffs lack standing to bring their claims and that the Statute is otherwise constitutional. Having been fully briefed on this Motion, the Court finds that Plaintiffs do have Article III standing to bring their claims, and therefore, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1). However, the Court finds that the Statute is constitutional under the various constitutional claims brought by Plaintiffs, and therefore, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and DISMISSES all of Plaintiffs' claims with prejudice.



         This dispute involves the constitutionality of Section 2.202 of the Texas Family Code (hereinafter “Section 2.202” or the “Statute”), which only authorizes persons who are officers of a religious organization and authorized by the organization to conduct marriages (e.g., ministers, priests, rabbis) and secular governmental officials (e.g., current and retired state and federal judges) to solemnize marriage ceremonies in Texas, while not granting that same right to non-governmental secular individuals. Doc. 1, Compl., ¶¶ 1, 14. The suit is brought by CFI, “an organization that is devoted to the pursuit of ethical alternatives to religion, ” and two of its Texas members-Eric McCutchan and Arthur Bratteng-who are “celebrants” certified by CFI to solemnize secular marriage ceremonies. Id. ¶¶ 1, 4-6, 21-22. Plaintiffs allege that they wish to conduct marriage ceremonies in Texas, but due to the Statute, they are unable to lawfully perform these services. Id. ¶¶ 21-22, 27. Plaintiffs further allege that CFI has members in Texas who would like to be married by CFI's celebrants but are unable to have such a wedding ceremony because of the Statute. Id. ¶¶ 23, 30. This suit is brought against John F. Warren, in his official capacity as Dallas County Clerk, who is ultimately given the authority to record marriages licenses in Dallas County, and who allegedly refuses to record licenses returned by secular celebrants. Id. ¶¶ 7, 31.

         Plaintiffs filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the constitutionality of Section 2.202 on four separate grounds. As discussed in more detail below, Plaintiffs argue that the Statute is unconstitutional because: (Count I) it creates a preference for religion over nonreligion in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, id. ¶¶ 33-38; (Count II) it violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause by extending the right to officiate weddings to religious leaders and allowing persons of faith to be married by religious leaders of their choice while denying that right to Plaintiffs and couples who desire secular weddings, id. ¶¶ 39-43; (Count III) it violates Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution's protection against religious tests being used as qualifiers for any office or position of public trust in the United States by requiring a person to profess a religious faith before being given legal authority to solemnize marriages in Texas, id. ¶¶ 44-49; and (Count IV) it violates the unconstitutional-conditions doctrine by conditioning a benefit-solemnizing marriages in Texas-only on those who profess a religion, id. ¶¶ 50-56. Ultimately, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2202, that Section 2.202 is unconstitutional and that Defendant must accept marriages solemnized by Plaintiffs. Id. ¶¶ 57-59.

         In response to Plaintiffs' Complaint, Defendant filed this Motion to Dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Doc. 11, Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, 1. Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims arguing that: (1) Plaintiffs lack standing to bring this suit; and (2) even if the Court were to find that Plaintiffs have standing, they have failed to state any claim upon which relief can be granted. Id. Plaintiffs filed their Response (Doc. 18) to Defendant's Motion, and Defendant his Reply (Doc. 19). Defendant's Motion is therefore ripe for the Court's review.



         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)

         “‘Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.'” MacKenzie v. Castro, No. 3:15-cv-0752-D, 2016 WL 3906084, at *2 (N.D. Tex. July 19, 2016) (quoting Stockman v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998)). For that reason, they can adjudicate claims only when subject matter jurisdiction “is expressly conferred by the Constitution and federal statute.” Armstrong v. Tygart, 886 F.Supp.2d 572, 584 (W.D. Tex. 2012). And Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides the vehicle through which a party may challenge that jurisdiction. Id. “Standing is an issue of subject matter jurisdiction, and thus can be contested by a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss.” Little v. Tex. Attorney Gen., 2015 WL 5613321, at *2 n.5 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 24, 2015) (citing Lee v. Verizon Commc'ns Inc., 954 F.Supp.2d 486, 496 (N.D. Tex. 2013)).

         “A Rule 12(b)(1) motion can mount either a facial or factual challenge.” MacKenzie, 2016 WL 3906084, at *2. A facial challenge occurs “[w]hen a party files a Rule 12(b)(1) motion without including evidence.” Id. A factual challenge, by contrast, occurs when a party supports its Rule 12(b)(1) motion with evidence. Id.

         In both cases, the burden of proof “‘is on the party asserting jurisdiction.'” Id. (quoting Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001) (per curiam)). So Plaintiffs must prove jurisdiction exists. Here, Defendant filed his Rule 12(b)(1) motion without any additional evidence, so it is considered a facial attack. Thus, the Court considers just the sufficiency of “the allegations in the complaint because they are presumed to be true.” Paterson v. Weinberger, 644 F.2d 521, 523 (5th Cir. 1981). And “[i]f those jurisdictional allegations are sufficient, the complaint stands.” Id.

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

         Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes a court to dismiss a plaintiff's complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Id. 12(b)(6). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “[t]he court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007). The court will “not look beyond the face of the pleadings to determine whether relief should be granted based on the alleged facts.” Spivey v. Robertson, 197 F.3d 772, 774 (5th Cir. 1999).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. When well-pleaded facts fail to achieve this plausibility standard, “the complaint has alleged-but it has not shown-that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. at 679 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).



         The Court now turns to Defendant's grounds for dismissal under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Because the Fifth Circuit has instructed courts to first address jurisdictional arguments before any attack on the merits, the Court will begin with Defendant's arguments under Rule 12(b)(1). See Ramming, 281 F.3d at 161. However, to put this dispute in context, the Court first summarizes the marriage-licensing scheme in Texas, including the requirements of Section 2.202.

         A.Texas's Marriage-Licensing System

         At issue in this case is Section 2.202 of the Texas Family Code, which provides in relevant part that:

(a) The following persons are authorized to conduct a marriage ceremony:
(1) a licensed or ordained Christian minister or priest;
(2) a Jewish rabbi;
(3) a person who is an officer of a religious organization and who is authorized by the organization to conduct a marriage ceremony;
(4) a justice of the supreme court, judge of the court of criminal appeals, justice of the courts of appeals, judge of the district, county, and probate courts, judge of the county courts at law, judge of the courts of domestic relations, judge of the juvenile courts, retired justice or judge of those courts, justice of the peace, retired justice of the peace, judge of a municipal court, retired judge of a municipal court, associate judge of a statutory probate court, retired associate judge of a statutory probate court, associate judge of a county court at law, retired associate judge of a county court at law, or judge or magistrate of a federal court of this state; and
(5) a retired judge or magistrate of a federal court of this state.

Tex. Fam. Code § 2.202(a). The person who performs the ceremony must return the license to a County Clerk, such as Defendant, who will then record and issue the completed marriage certificate. Id. §§ 2.206, 2.208. Although a marriage ceremony conducted by an unauthorized person may be invalid, and a person who knowingly conducts a marriage ceremony in Texas without the requisite authority is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, id. §§ 2.202(c), 2.302, Defendant is not required by the Texas Family Code to examine the credentials of the person who returns a marriage license, see id. § 2.208. In fact, Defendant argues that neither the Texas Family Code, and by extension himself, in his capacity as Clerk of Dallas County, Texas, “make any judgment with respect to the sincerity, validity, or merit of any religion's beliefs or the qualifications of any religion's officers, instead treating all religions equally.” Doc. 11, Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, 2. However, Plaintiffs still take issue with this Statue because “persons seeking to celebrate a secular marriage ceremony in Texas must either choose from a list of unfamiliar state and federal judges or forsake their secular philosophies and employ a religious celebrant.” Doc. 18, Pls.' Resp., 4.

         B. Dismissal Under Rule 12(b)(1)-Article III Standing

         Defendant first challenges Plaintiffs' constitutional claims arguing that Plaintiffs-both CFI, the organization; and McCutchan and Bratteng, the two individual celebrants (hereinafter the “Individual Plaintiffs”)-lack standing because they have not suffered any injury-in-fact. Doc. 11, Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, 4-6.

         The judicial power of federal courts is limited by Article III of the Constitution. Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283 F.3d 315, 318 (5th Cir. 2002). “‘[T]he Constitution's central mechanism of separation of powers depends largely upon common understanding of what activities are appropriate to legislatures, to executives, and to courts.'” Id. (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 559-60 (1992)). Constitutional or Article III standing “‘is an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III.'” Ford v. NYLCare Health Plans of Gulf Coast, Inc., 301 F.3d 329, 332 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560). To satisfy the prerequisites of Article III standing, Plaintiffs must show that: (1) they suffered an injury in fact (one that is “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical”); (2) there is a causal connection between the injury and the challenged conduct of the defendant; and (3) the injury will likely be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan, 504 U.S. at 559-60.

         Defendant does not challenge Plaintiffs' ability to demonstrate the traceability or redressability elements of the constitutional standing doctrine. The sole inquiry is whether Plaintiffs' claims-both for CFI as an organization and the Individual Plaintiffs-meet the first element of Article III standing, injury-in-fact.[2] However, because the injury-in-fact showing required for CFI is different from the showing required for the Individual Plaintiffs and because the Court's determination on the Individual Plaintiffs' standing is partially relevant to CFI's associational standing, the Court addresses whether the Individual Plaintiffs have suffered an injury-in-fact before discussing the same for CFI.

         1. Individual Plaintiffs' Standing

         With regards to the Individual Plaintiffs, Defendant argues that they have not suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” because “they have no legally cognizable right to perform marriage ceremonies.” Doc. 11, Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, 4-5 (emphasis in original) (quoting Barber v. Bryant, 860 F.3d 345, 352 (5th Cir. 2017)). Defendant argues that because “the asserted right to conduct a marriage ceremony is not found anywhere in the Constitution . . . all of Plaintiffs' claims must be dismissed for failure to establish an injury in fact.” Id. at 5. Plaintiffs instead argue that these celebrants have suffered an injury-in-fact sufficient to satisfy constitutional standing because the Statute “allows religious celebrants to obtain a benefit-the ability to lawfully solemnize a marriage-but erects a barrier that prevents secular celebrants from being able to do the same.” Doc. 18, Pls.' Resp., 7.

         Ultimately, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' argument prevails.

When the government erects a barrier that makes it more difficult for members of one group to obtain a benefit than it is for members of another group, a member of the former group seeking to challenge the barrier need not allege that he would have obtained the benefit but for the barrier in order to establish standing. The ‘injury in fact' in an equal protection case of this variety is the denial of equal treatment resulting from the imposition of the barrier, not the ultimate inability to obtain the benefit.

Ne. Fla. Chapter of Assoc. Gen. Contractors of Am. v. City of Jacksonville, Fla., 508 U.S. 656, 666 (1993). Thus, [d]iscriminatory treatment at the hands of the government is an injury ‘long recognized as judicially cognizable.'” Tex. Cable & Telecomms. Ass'n v. Hudson, 265 Fed.Appx. ...

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