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Most states make it pretty easy for laypeople to perform weddings. More and more couples are asking a friend or relative, rather than a religiously ordained or affiliated priest, to perform their wedding ceremony. Those friends and relatives can simply hop online and get approved to oversee a ceremony and sign the marriage certificate.
But not in Tennessee. Starting next month a new law will prohibit online-ordained ministers from performing marriages in the Volunteer State. So you might need to change your officiant plans.
Previously, "any such minister, preacher, pastor, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader must be ordained or otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple or other religious group or organization" in order to perform a marriage in Tennessee, and "such customs must provide for such ordination or designation by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act." But according to the Tennessee attorney general, websites that only require registration don't meet that bar. "Other than the click of a mouse," a 2015 opinion asserts, an online ordination is not the required "considered, deliberate, and responsible act."
The new law "brings clarity to a gray area," according to Knox County Clerk of Court Sherry Witt, who conceded that her office doesn't check the credentials of any wedding officiant listed in the 300 to 350 marriage licenses it issues every month. "My duties are to make sure the paperwork sent to the state is accurate," Witt told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "We are not allowed to question the authority of a marriage; we do not know who is ordained (online)."
So, if you were hoping that Stephen Colbert, Paul McCartney, or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (all ordained by the California-based Universal Life Church) were going to perform your Nashville nuptials this summer, we have some sad news for you. Online organizations like the ULC and American Marriage Ministries have vowed to challenge the law, but that could take time and may not ultimately be successful.
In the meantime, if you want your marriage to be legally enforceable, it's best to go with a professional. And if you're wondering if a prior ceremony performed by your buddy who got ordained online is valid, talk to a local family law attorney.
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