Federal Judge Blocks Tennessee’s Ban on Online Ordination for Wedding Officiants

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After a religious freedom lawsuit, a federal judge this week blocked Tennessee’s new ban on online ordination for wedding officiants, citing “serious constitutional issues.”

The Universal Life Church Monastery—a top destination for giving friends and family credentials to perform ceremonies—had sued the Volunteer State over the policy, which it said “grants a preference to certain religions” and “burdens its members’ free exercise of religion.”

The law was set to go into effect July 1, but federal judge Waverly Crenshaw decided on Wednesday to allow weddings conducted by online-ordained celebrants to resume until a trial later this year. Officials argued the policy was designed to ensure officiants were responsible enough to perform their duties on behalf of the state.

Unlike most denominations, churches, and religious organizations, nonprofits like the Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries exist primarily to ordain the growing number of friends and family members tapped to officiate weddings. Recent surveys show between a quarter and half of US ceremonies are now performed by loved ones rather than traditional ministers.

While Tennessee lawmakers see pastors and religious clergy as beyond the scope of the ban—since they already meet the legal standard of “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act” for ordination—the law could become an issue if churches begin to offer “online ordination as the culmination of online theological training,” according to Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“For now, if the law is upheld, most ordaining organizations will continue to ordain their leaders as they have always done,” she said. “Only those religious groups which do not include an in-person component for their ordinations would have to make changes in order to satisfy the requirements that must be met for private citizens to perform this state function.”

In the US, weddings represent a unique intersection of church and state. The government licenses marriages, in part, to codify the legal benefits and protections afforded to married couples. More than a decade ago, CT reported how Pennsylvania barred online ordination for wedding celebrants, requiring religious officials lead to a “regularly established church or congregation” to qualify. Virginia has similar requirements, asking that religious officiants provide evidence of their role at a gathered congregation and that they are in good standing with their denomination.

But after state and county procedures have long straddled the civil and religious functions of the ceremony, fewer Americans care about the latter, leading to the rise of nontraditional and secular celebrants.

Some Christian leaders have questioned whether the church should be a part of the civil ceremony at all, particularly as same-sex marriage became legal. About a quarter of pastors and a third of Americans said clergy should no longer be involved in state marriage licensing in a 2014 LifeWay Research poll.

“The argument for allowing ministers to solemnize wedding with civil effect is basically an argument of accommodating the wishes and the convenience of the couple. Many people will want their wedding performed by a minister, by a clergy person, and why make them go through a separate ceremony?” said Thomas Berg, law professor and religious freedom expert at University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.

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Source: Christianity Today