The house in Chattanooga, Tenn., was the perfect venue for the quiet wedding the two men were planning for August. They would hold the ceremony in the glass-clad sunroom of the house, set on 2 acres that backed up to the woods. They started to write their own vows. The owner of the house, the couple’s friend Gabriel Biser, agreed to officiate.
But then Biser, 36, got bad news that brought his friends’ plans, and those of many others in Tennessee, to a halt. On May 21, Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a bill that amended state law to prevent ministers ordained online from solemnizing weddings, starting July 1.
“It’s summertime in the South,” Biser, a minister who was ordained online in 2015, said. “In the evening, we get fireflies. It is kind of a magic time for us. It was going to be a very intimate ceremony. Then we found out about this law.”
So Biser, two other ministers ordained online, and the Universal Life Church Monastery, the nonprofit organization that ordained them, filed a lawsuit in federal court last month that alleges the new legislative action violates their rights of expression and religion.
On July 3, a judge blocked the law and ordered a trial to be held this year, court documents show. On Friday, lawyers for the five defendants — four county clerks and the state attorney general, Herbert H. Slatery III — met with the plaintiffs’ representatives to set a tentative trial date in November or December.
Critics say the law restricts citizens’ ability to personalize marriage ceremonies that are unconventional. Online ordinations are often procured by friends of gay couples and by those who are officiating at bilingual weddings or weddings that are interfaith, not religious, or not affiliated with traditional churches, they say.
“This is a backdoor attack on the LGBT community, impeding our ability to be legally wed,” said Biser, who has officiated at ceremonies for four gay and straight couples, all of them friends, since he was ordained. “After doing a few of these myself, there is a certain intimacy about having somebody you already know officiate. They always say, ‘We could not imagine this day without you being part of it.’ ”
Couples who want low-cost “backyard weddings” or who plan to customize their ceremonies will also be affected, said Lewis King, executive director of American Marriage Ministries, which ordains ministers online. The organization quickly dispatched a team to Tennessee to conduct ordinations in person after hearing about the law.
“Look at the groups of people who are negatively impacted by this law,” he said. “LGBT couples, now if they want to get married, they have to go to a government office and maybe get married by someone who does not respect who they are. Courthouse weddings are going to be in English. These groups are completely sidelined by this law.”
But the state argues that by explicitly banning online ordinations, the new law, Public Chapter 415, does not significantly alter Tennessee law, which has always required ministers to be ordained after “considered, deliberate and responsible” preparation. An ordination that takes little more than a “click of a mouse” is not sufficient to authorize a person to solemnize marriages, Slatery, the attorney general, argued, according to court documents.
State Representative Ron Travis, a Republican, said it was impossible to determine online whether a person had 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, according to WATE-TV.
The opposition in Tennessee reflects a clash with a growing trend in the United States to privatize marriage and personalize weddings by distancing them from the state or established religions.
Ministers ordained online can officiate at weddings in 48 states, with the exception of Virginia and some parts of Pennsylvania, according to the Universal Life Church Monastery, which says it has ordained more than 20 million ministers nationwide. But rules can vary by county, as in New York state.
Tennessee had not explicitly ruled out online ordinations before Public Chapter 415. Slatery’s court rebuttal to the lawsuit said that online ministers could still officiate at weddings, but that the couple would still need to “have their marriage solemnized in the state.”
Lucian T. Pera, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that step placed an extra “burden” on the online minister and the couples they had married.
Donna Flores, who was ordained by American Marriage Ministries, said her plans to officiate at eight bilingual or fully Spanish-language weddings from July through October were thrown into question. As one of the state’s few ordained ministers who is fluent in Spanish, she also conducts counseling.
“That is a major hit when they are saying, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” she said of the law. Many of the couples she is scheduled to marry do not belong to a church or know people who do premarital counseling, she said. “There is a big, wide range of areas here that is affected.”
King said American Marriage Ministries had ordained more than 13,000 ministers in Tennessee since 2009. Thousands of people had weddings planned for the summer, he said.
“Let’s say I want my minister to dress up as a stormtrooper,” he said. “You are going to be hard pressed to find a minister like that from a mainstream church.”
“It feels like a consolidation of power,” he said of the new law. “Bringing religion back to the mainstream brick-and-mortar churches.”