This past July, I went to a wedding. It wasn’t traditional. There was no walk down the aisle. The bride wore a beautiful black dress. There was no wedding party. There were no pews. The couple had asked my partner, Jamie Lewis, to officiate the ceremony for them.
Jamie isn’t a priest. The couple is non-religious, and they wanted a ceremony that reflected their values of equality, choice, and partnership—values they know that Jamie shares. So Jamie became ordained online, through one of many organizations that offer the service, so she could make their marriage legally official.
As the couple stood before her, she asked them to promise one another that they would forever honor each other as the people they are and the people that they would become. With their agreement and a signed marriage certificate, the two were happily wed, and a script was laid for future ceremonies that Jamie might want to perform.
But if the Tennessee legislature has its way, Jamie—and thousands of other people ordained online—will not be allowed to perform any additional ceremonies.
On May 29, 2019, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that changes who is allowed to solemnize a marriage in the state. Members of the Republican legislature framed it as “permissive” because it enables any member of Tennessee’s General Assembly to officiate marriages. But it also strips that right from anyone who received their ordination online.
As with anything that restricts marriage, many people in the state of Tennessee had the sense that this bill was meant to be an attack on the LGBTQ community.
“It was so profoundly unconstitutional.”
I went with Jamie to a mass in-person ordination held by American Marriage Ministries, one of the top providers of online ordinations in the country; they have ordained over 13,000 ministers in the state of Tennessee alone. While there, I had the chance to speak to some other newly ordained ministers.
One lesbian couple wanted to start a side gig of marrying people in their community.
A straight couple believed that the state was “probably trying to stop gay marriage.” “I don’t want that to happen,” one of them said..
Another person wanted to be ordained outside of her faith tradition, to open herself up to other kinds of ceremonies.
But everyone I spoke to was uneasy at the passage of the law disempowering those ordained online.
“[T]he minute the news kind of broke about this, we started getting panicked emails and phone calls, and it was so profoundly unconstitutional,” said Lewis King, the Executive Director of American Marriage Ministries.
“We started hearing more and more people who were just desperate because these are folks that had weddings planned this week and the week after. And you’ve got to be able to guarantee to the couple that the wedding is going to be legally valid. And no couple is going to want to be standing up there if that is not the case. So we realized we had to do something.”
American Marriage Ministries held several mass in-person ordinations throughout the state during the month of June, making the process almost as easy as online ordination for those who would normally go that route, and ensuring that their ordinations were valid. Meanwhile, Universal Life Church (ULC), another organization that offers online ordinations, sued the state. On July 3, a judge prohibited the law from going into effect while the case is pending.
A sponsor of the bill, Senator Ken Yager, who did not return request for comment, argued in his comments on the floor of the legislature that the law doesn’t limit anyone’s rights, but, rather, clarifies the current law.
In 1998, while the Internet was still in its early dial-up stages, the Tennessee code was amended to say that “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; and such customs must provide for such ordination or designation by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”
But the language of “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act,” while possibly intended to refer to traditional denominational ordinations, is unclear, and does not mention the burgeoning Internet at all. So while it is true that Tennessee has been uncomfortable with online ordinations for some time, the law was applied unevenly, with some counties accepting the signature of ministers ordained online, and others not.
”You can’t tell me that there is a God if that God can’t transfer or communicate over cyberspace.”
To make matters more complicated, it is illegal in the state of Tennessee for a county clerk to question the signature of the officiant of a marriage. Theoretically, anyone can be married by anyone in the state without this oversight. However, if a couple wishes to divorce, the marriage can be declared invalid if the officiant did not have the proper paperwork at the time of the ceremony. And any kind of legal entitlements from divorce can be thrown out the window. Additionally, if an officiant is found to have signed a marriage license without the proper qualifications, they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which can result in a maximum punishment of 11 months, 29 days in prison and up to $2,500 fine.
So while the law might be clarifying, the assertion that the law is a permissive one is a hard pill to swallow for some. “[C]alling [the law] permissive is bizarre,” said King. “Because if you give the right to a couple thousand people at best, and strip tens of thousands of ministers of a right, that’s not permissive. That’s very restrictive.”
The Universal Life Church president, George Freeman, agrees. “[I]t’s putting limiters on what you can and can’t do, and whose religion you can and cannot accept,” he said. “That makes it a selection of a religion, or a preference of religion, and that’s a violation of the Constitution. So that’s the reason we fight. We fight that everybody’s entitled to their own God, and we represent all of them.”
The ULC lawsuit includes three ULC ministers, and one couple as plaintiffs. The ministers have had to turn down couples since the law was passed. One of them was prevented from officiating a wedding when a county clerk denied the couple a marriage license after learning that a ULC minister would be performing the service.
The lawsuit alleges that the purpose of the earlier 1998 law and the 2019 law is to “to draw a line between favored and disfavored religious groups.” Additionally, the ULC refutes the idea that an “Internet church” can’t be a real church. Freeman holds up “All the televangelists throughout the United States,” as a counter.
“[S]ince the days of Oral Roberts, on the radio, and everything else, we use the airwaves,” he said. ”You can’t tell me that there is a God if that God can’t transfer or communicate over cyberspace.”
And the fact of the matter is that there is a lack of religious options for many in Tennessee. For someone looking for an officiant that will cater to an interfaith couple or a non-religious couple, an Internet church may be their best hope. After all, according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of the population of the state identifies as Christian, with only 13 percent identifying as non-evangelical. And while there may be LGBT identity-affirming churches in major cities such as Nashville and Memphis, they become much harder to find in more rural parts of the state, which, let’s face it, is most of the state.
Nicole Threadgill is an online-ordained minister who officiates weddings in and around the town of Milan (pronounced My-lan), Tennessee. She said the law puts pressure on clergy now that fewer people can deliver a service that’s in high demand.
“I had reached out to a person, a chaplain in Knoxville who did go to seminary and I asked her how she was affected by the law,” Threadgill recounted. “And she told me that nobody goes to seminary solely to officiate weddings, and that there are so many weddings that happen in Tennessee every single weekend that the ministry can't support that, and they can't put their energy into it because they're already working sixty hour work weeks.”
Threadgill is currently turning away clients until the legal situation is resolved, but she is having some trouble recommending replacements. “I only have about two to three resources that meet the seminary requirements that I can refer people to and they just can't take all of the clients that I send them.”
Many of her clients are also opting to go to the courthouse with her before the ceremony so that their marriage will be, without a doubt, legally binding.
But in some counties, clients like Threadgill’s might not be able to go to the courthouse beforehand. After Obergefell v. Hodges legalized gay marriage nationally, many county clerks’ offices have stopped performing marriage ceremonies. Before this new law, it was already becoming increasingly difficult to get married in the state of Tennessee without seeking out a church.
Now all signs point to the fact that the restrictions on Internet-ordained ministers will make it harder for people in minority communities to access the legal and social benefits of marriage. And this could extend past secular groups and LGBT groups. This could also have an impact on non-English speaking couples, low income couples who may not have the money to hire a minister, or even religious couples whose churches may not have a minister who is officially ordained.
Lewis King, of American Marriage Ministries, believes that is the law’s intent. If the state wins in court, he said, “The outcome is that it disenfranchises basically every single minority community in Tennessee. What was their objective here? Probably to strip them of their rights. Probably to make Tennessee the kind of a state where mainstream, conservative Christianity dominates the public sphere. And, whether or not that was their intention, and I’m going to go ahead and say it probably was, look at the communities that are negatively impacted and how they’re negatively impacted.”
George Freeman, of the Universal Life Church also suspected that the law targets LGBTQ communities. “They have learned to be more stealth in their behavior,” he said of conservative lawmakers. “They know that we read and write, and they know that the blue states will object to anything that they see, that looks suspicious.”
And object they did. For now, the law is on hold, pending the resolution of the ULC lawsuit. According to The Tennessean, the judge assigned to the case said the lawsuit raised “serious constitutional issues,” that should be considered at trial. That trial is expected to take place in December. Until then, ministers ordained online can continue to perform ceremonies, if they wish.
And that was good news for Jamie. When she performed the ceremony for her friends, she pronounced them husband and wife, “By the power vested in me by you, because that’s really all that matters.”