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What you need to know about Tennessee's battle over who can officiate weddings

Should lawmakers be allowed to limit the rise of online ordination?

SALT LAKE CITY — In May, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to explicitly outlaw online ordination for wedding officiants.

This month, it became the first state to have such a law put on hold by a judge.

Despite these firsts, the battle is familiar. For centuries, couples, families and community leaders have argued about the right way to get married.

Kate Rocheford lived this reality as she planned her June wedding to her now-husband, Evan. The couple wanted a nontraditional wedding outside near a campground in Indiana, but some of their loved ones worried the ceremony would feel too informal.

"Some people were worried that it wouldn't be serious enough. They wondered if it would really be a wedding," she said.

The couple eased some of the tension by selecting Adam, Kate's brother, as their officiant. He'd offered to get ordained online, and family members thought his nearly 10 years of marriage experience made him well-qualified to lead the service.

"Everyone knows and trusts and loves him. Once we'd chosen him, the planning was actually pretty easy," said Rocheford, who lives in Indianapolis.

If the Tennessee law stands, a resolution like that wouldn't be possible for couples in the state unless their chosen officiant attended seminary or some other in-person training. Legislators argued that officiants should be required to do more to prepare for their wedding-related duties than fill out an online form.

But even if you agree, you should be wary of the state's new law, according to Carolyn Homer, an expert on the First Amendment's religious freedom protections. Allowing government officials to interfere with ordination opens the door to other intrusions.

"If you give the government the authority to define what is a permissible religious marriage and what's not, then they have that power across all religions and all contexts," Homer said.

Marriage regulations

Although Tennessee's law is unique, it's not new for states to regulate when and how people can get married. Officials create barriers to entry into wedded bliss, since it triggers a variety of legal consequences.

"Governments want to make sure that marriages are entered into with significant seriousness," said Homer, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Each state has slightly different marriage regulations, but most limit who can perform the ceremony to government officials and ordained ministers. It wasn't until the invention of the internet and rise of groups like Universal Life Church Ministries, a popular online ordination service, that ordained minister status became so easy to achieve.

Tennessee lawmakers who support the ban on online ordination claim it violates the state's pre-existing requirement that officiants be ordained in a "deliberate and responsible" manner. Rather than a legal shift, they characterize the new law as a common sense policy.

"We have right now in Tennessee a situation where people are going online and getting an online ordination in order to marry friends and family members," said House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, during deliberations over HB213, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Right now we don't know under the eyes of the law whether those are legal marriages. So we desperately need clarification."

However, Homer and others believe the legislators' effort to resolve legal confusion overstepped their authority. The Constitution aims to prevent officials from interfering with religious practices, which would include determining the right way to ordain a religious officiant.

It violates the First Amendment when "governmental bodies define what is sufficiently religious," Homer said.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed a lawsuit last month challenging Tennessee's new law. Its leaders argue that government officials don't have a right to say their ordination process is too informal, said Ian Smith, a staff attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"The complaint basically says that the law is written specifically to disfavor" Universal Life Church Ministries, he said.

In an initial hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw seemed sympathetic to this view, The Tennessean reported. He said the state hadn't offered a convincing justification for its policy change.

"If their concern is that people should understand their legal responsibilities better, then they should train them, not block a particular religion from" ordaining new officiants, Smith said.

Governments should get a say in how you report your marriage to them, not how the wedding takes place, Homer said.

"Being judgmental about other people's personal lives isn't something we should bake into the law," she said.

Community conversations

However, that doesn't mean we should simply accept the rise of online ordinations and other contemporary wedding trends and move on. Couples have more freedom than ever before to plan a unique ceremony, and that can sometimes be a bad thing, said Catherine Parks, author of "A Christ-Centered Wedding."

"There's a lot of pressure to make (your wedding) perfect because it feels like the one day you have to show everyone who you are and what your love is like," she said.

In this environment, couples sometimes spend their time agonizing over unique decorations or researching trendy vows instead of building a valuable support system. They're so focused on what's best for them that they miss opportunities to draw on the wisdom of others.

"We're losing the commonality of marriage," Parks said.

We're also losing its religious underpinnings, as couples choose friends who were ordained online over pastors and parks over churches. Only 22 percent of weddings in 2017 took place in religious spaces, The Knot reported last year.

Additionally, fewer than half of U.S. adults today are at least "moderately likely" to consult with religious leaders about marriage, divorce or relationships, according to a May survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

If these findings are slightly horrifying to you, it's OK to express that to your family and friends, like some of Rocheford's loved ones did. But when state leaders try to define what an appropriate religious ordination process looks like, that weakens religious freedom protections for us all, said Nick Little, vice president and general counsel for The Center for Inquiry, an organization that is pushing states across the country to allow secular officiants.

"As long as the paperwork gets filed, the state shouldn't care if you're married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator or at your local church by a Presbyterian minister or in the woods by a Wiccan or in a local park by your friend," he said.

Although Little and others expect Universal Life Church Ministries to win its lawsuit in Tennessee, they say the debate is far from over. As America becomes less religious, it won't just be families struggling to embrace new marriage norms.

"This isn't an issue that's going away. More and more people will be willing to stand up and say, 'I'm not religious and I want to have the wedding that I want,'" Little said.