Tennessee couple discouraged friend can’t officiate wedding because of new state law

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – After getting engaged last summer, Laura Stone wasn’t the lead planner for her October wedding; her fiancée was.

Stone said she would give an opinion every so often, which included the discussion of who would officiate the ceremony.

“When you start thinking about who you’re going to choose, obviously you go through the list like, “do I need to go get a county clerk? No, I don’t want that. I don’t want my pastor from when I was 5 to d ot it,” Stone said.

She and her fiancée wanted their ceremony to feel more personal, so they wanted a friend to get ordained online.

That won’t be possible after July 1.

Governor Bill Lee signed House Bill 213 into law on May 21, and it has now become Public Chapter 415. 

The new law prohibits a person who was ordained online from officiating marriages.

While the law takes the privilege away from any Tennessean, it expands the number of government officials who can perform a civil marriage ceremony.

Rep. Ron Travis, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he wanted the current law to include members of municipal legislative bodies, members of the General Assembly who ‘opted in’ with the Office of Vital Records and law enforcement chaplains.

The current law allows the following to perform marriage ceremonies:

  • Current county clerks and former clerks who were in office after July 1, 2014
  • Ordained religious leaders
  • Current and former county commissioners
  • City mayors
  • Current and former county mayors
  • Current and former judges
  • Governor
  • Current and former speakers of state and house of representatives

Travis said another representative added the amendment prohibiting online ordained ministers from performing ceremonies.

He said weddings are either civil or religious ceremonies. Someone ordained online would perform a religious ceremony.

Travis said going online for 10 minutes doesn’t mean a religious leader determines that person has the “care of souls” as the law states.

“Just because you pay $50 and get a certificate doesn’t mean you’re an ordained minister,” Travis said.

After the law takes effect, the clerk’s office won’t be able to determine if the ceremony was valid or not, according to Knox County Clerk Sherry Witt.

“We’re not allowed to question the credentials of the officiant. We just have to make sure the paperwork is all submitted to the state correctly,” Witt said.

She said the paperwork only requires the officiant to write their name, where and when the ceremony was performed, the officiant’s address and whether the ceremony was civil or religious.

The state only finds out if the officiant was properly ordained when the marriage license is questioned in the court of law.

Witt and Travis said the state attorney general made an opinion on the matter before, which was probably a reason why the language was added into law this year.

Travis said the Tennessee Clerk’s Association brought up the issue because clerks believed too many people were getting ordained online and there was a chance the licenses wouldn’t be valid.

In 2015, the state attorney general’s office submitted an opinion specifically stating that ordinations done through Universal Life Church weren’t valid.

Witt said the opinion focused on the aspect that clicking a mouse isn’t a “considered, deliberate and responsible act,” which the law requires.

Stone said religion shouldn’t play a factor into who can or can’t marry someone.

“I think if you were religious you should still have the right to choose what you want to do. Some people are very religious, but maybe they want their grandfather to officiate it,” Stone said.

Travis said the law will help ensure a couple’s marriage is valid later down the road, because they won’t have to think about the possibility of the online certification their officiant received was legitimate.

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