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Tennessee and LoveOnline churches such as the Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries have long supported the right to marry an individual of one’s choosing. They’ve been directly involved in fighting for this right, allowing their ministers to solemnize marriages for couples unable to find other willing officiants. In the past, both have faced legal challenges to their ministers performing weddings. Yet a recently passed law in Tennessee banning online ministers from offering these services brings this struggle to the forefront once again. 

Old Legal Challenges Resurface in New Laws

National Public Radio’s Sergio Martínez-Beltrán reported on the new Tennessee law on July 13. He profiled a lesbian couple, Andrea and Leslie Isham, who’d been married by an online ordained minister in Clarksville last year. Martínez-Beltrán explained that Tennessee’s ordinance went into effect on July 1. The statute, which was passed in April, specifically prohibits internet ministers from solemnizing weddings.

This isn’t the first time that online ministers have been forbidden from performing weddings. Norfolk’s ABC 13 News explained that other states, including Alabama, New York, and Virginia, have sometimes refused to recognize marriages conducted by ULC, AMM, and other clergy ordained online. The Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson added that individual county clerks and commissioners throughout the country have applied additional scrutiny to ministers wanting to perform weddings, sometimes denying marriage licenses on a case-by-case basis.

Necessary Regulation or Legalized Discrimination?

The point of contention in Tennessee’s case lies in its 1998 amended code, which states that ministers “must be ordained or otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple or other religious group or organization.” State officials argue that ordinations by the ULC, AMM, and similar groups do not fit this legal requirement. Moreover, they contend that the 2019 law closes legal loopholes and clarifies the potentially uncertain status of weddings performed by online ministers. Marriages solemnized prior to July 1 would still be considered valid, however.

Some say that the fundamental right to marry lies at the heart of the matter. Critics across the state insist that the law was enacted specifically to make it harder for LGBTQ people to marry. In some communities, it can be more difficult to find affirming clergy or civil officials who will perform weddings for same-sex couples or transgender individuals. Others simply don’t want to have a traditional minister officiate their ceremonies.

Activism and Court Challenges

The Universal Life Church is fighting back in their own way. The ULC is fighting the law in court, filing suit against four county clerks and the state’s attorney general. The ULC argues that the ordinance violates the Constitution, discriminating against certain religions and denying its ministers their rights under the 14th Amendment’s due process provisions. 

According to the Hill’s John Bowden, the four ULC ordained ministers who joined the suit echoed concerns that the statute is explicitly meant to target LGBTQ individuals. Meanwhile, the ULC also requested an injunction against enforcing the law. The Times Free Press’s Andy Sher reported that U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw issued a temporary restraining order, preventing it from taking effect while the ULC’s suit proceeds through the courts.

Civil Rights and the Freedom To Marry

The struggle for civil rights has been a constant throughout American history. The freedom to marry has been affirmed by legal precedents such as the Supreme Court decisions Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges. With attempts like the new Tennessee law to limit these liberties, many groups and individuals continually fight to ensure that they remain.

Category: Marriage

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