September 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Legislators in Tennessee may have gone too far when they attempted to curb people who are ordained online from performing wedding ceremonies, a federal court has said.

State lawmakers in May passed legislation prohibiting clergy who were ordained online from officiating at weddings. In July, a federal judge questioned the motivation behind the law.

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. of the Middle District of Tennessee asserted that the law raises “serious constitutional issues” that must be addressed. Crenshaw put the provision on hold pending further legal action. Until then, he said, ministers who received their ordination online may continue to perform weddings in Tennessee.

The law appears to be aimed at the Universal Life Church (ULC), a denomination founded in California by Kirby B. Hensley, a former Baptist minister, in 1962. Hensley became famous for his willingness to ordain anyone for a fee. Before the rise of the Internet, the church often advertised for potential clergy in magazines.

Today the church, now based in Seattle, calls itself “a multi-denominational religious organization with millions of members all over the world” and says, “Over the decades, the ULC has garnered global recognition for its promotion of universal togetherness and religious expression around the world.”

The church’s website notes that several celebrities, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney, have been ordained by it. Members of its clergy have performed marriages in many states.

Two ULC ministers who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit attended the hearing over the matter. Afterward, one of them, Gabriel Biser, told the Nashville Tennessean that he is always careful to make certain that the proper paperwork is filed with the state so that the marriage is legal. Biser noted that some couples want a specialized wedding ceremony that other members of the clergy don’t offer, and in those cases ULC ministers are able to help.

“The day’s about the couple, and I don’t think the state has any room to say how they spend their day,” Biser said. “At the end of the day that’s about two people in love with one another and that’s what the focus should remain on. The rest is procedural.”

Tennessee legislators said the current rules are too lax.

“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 state Rep. Michael G. Curcio (R-Dist. 69), reported 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.”

But critics said the state appears to be targeting certain churches.  Ian Smith, staff attorney with Americans United, told the Salt Lake City Deseret News that the law allows “governmental bodies to define what is sufficiently religious.”

Added Smith, “The complaint basically says that the law is written specifically to disfavor” ULC ministers.

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