I woke up early on the morning of February 22, 2019 and drove to the Hall County Probate Court to see what Frank and Joseph’s wedding might have looked like if this particular office hadn’t decided to stop conducting courthouse wedding ceremonies.
The building is situated in the heart of Gainesville’s scenic downtown. I can see right away why the couple I’m about to join in marriage wanted to have their ceremony take place here. It’s solid, historic, and stately. There’s a significance to structures such as this one, bastions of civil society, and - up until a few years ago - popular destinations for courthouse weddings.
But that’s not possible any more, and that’s also why American Marriage Ministries’ efforts are still so important.
It all started when Frank, an AMM minister himself, emailed us wondering whether there were any AMM ministers in the Gainesville area that could officiate his wedding. (We’re working on a searchable minister directory, we promise!) But Frank wasn’t the first person to ask us about this, and while we usually tell our ministers something along the lines of, “we’re working on it,” there was something about his email that warranted a second read.
“We found out today that they no longer perform marriages and [the clerk] suggested we seek out an ordained minister,” Frank wrote.
American Marriage Ministries is founded on the principle that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have the right to marry. We take our advocacy efforts seriously, and one of our ministers was in a bind. A few hours later I had a ticket to Atlanta, where I resolved to investigate this situation.
Oh and also officiate Frank and Joseph’s wedding!
According to Hall County Probate Court’s website, they still offer courthouse wedding ceremonies. At the clerk’s office, the lady behind the desk had pointed the two men in the direction of the room where wedding ceremonies could be arranged, apparently unaware that Frank and Joseph were about to have their hopes dashed.
“We both recall the clerk saying, ‘yes, we do weddings,’” Frank told me. “They even provided directions to the office where they were arranged!”
It wasn’t as if they hadn’t done their research, either. The county’s website still advertises that couples can get married at the courthouse. But it turned out that the county had stopped the service in 2014, well before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling! They just forgot to update their website.
“It was just too much to handle,” the clerk told me when I inquired. “We made the decision to cut back on what we were offering.”
While it’s nice to know that Gainesville’s decision was purely pragmatic, that hasn’t always been the case. Other counties, especially in the rural south, chose to stop offering the service for less benign reasons – namely, an unwillingness to marry same-sex couples. That meant one less place where minority orientation couples could get married.
It’s a reminder that the battle for marriage equality is not over yet. This trend is also a reminder of how important it is that couples have access to ministers that share their values and beliefs.
It’s worth noting that Hall County Probate Court Judge, Patty Walters Laine, attends the Redwine United Methodist Church, which doesn’t recognize gay marriage. Had the decision to stop offering courthouse weddings come a year later, this might have been a red flag.
Frank and Joseph live in a quiet neighborhood just west of downtown Gainesville. As I pull into their driveway, I’m struck by how quintessentially American their home is. It looks like thousands of others that I’ve passed on the way to the wedding. In fact, almost everything about these two gentlemen’s life together is as American as apple pie, from their pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstrap’s ethos, to their divergent politics. Frank’s liberal, Joseph says that he’s “more fiscally conservative,” but in both cases, their politics are driven by a desire to have the best life possible for their small family. And whatever their political differences, their shared love and admiration for each other are that much stronger.
Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans are so fixated on same-sex attraction that they can’t see how much we all have in common with families like Frank and Joseph.
Just days ago, the United Methodist Church, which holds considerable sway in the Bible Belt region, announced that clergy and individual churches would face removal from the denomination if they do not affirm its stance against gay marriage by 2021. The decision was seen as a rejection of an alternative plan to open the church to same-sex marriage. For thousands of LGBTQ Methodists, this decision is a slap in the face, as their faith community turns on them.
While we’re all entitled to our opinions – no matter how misguided – some of our compatriots have taken their anti-gay sentiments to work, and in many cases, these people work in local government.
Kentucky clerk Kim Davis made headlines with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but others have taken a quieter, less controversial route. Many have simply cancelled the service across the board, for gay and straight couples.
It’s hard to say how many counties have adopted this policy, and in most cases, these decisions haven’t made the news. It’s a hard number to pin down because many counties don’t go on record about the decision, but something fishy is certainly going on. All across the country, courthouse weddings started to disappear in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision and according to Occam's razor, “simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones.”
So why in 2015?
Geneva County Alabama Probate Judge Fred Hamic announced he was permanently ending courthouse weddings for religious reasons. “It is based strictly on my Christian beliefs,” Hamic explained.
And since Alabama Code Section 30-1-9 says that, "Marriage licenses may be issued by the judges of probate of the several counties,” Hamic appears to be within his rights, regardless of the moral implications. The law says "may" instead of "shall,” which, according to Hamic, permits probate judges to opt out of issuing marriage licenses.
In another instance, following the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Maury and Hickman County Clerk’s offices in Tennessee made the news when they decided to stop officiating weddings. Hickman County Clerk Casey Dorton explained at the time that they would no longer officiate any weddings, regardless of the couple’s gender.
“You can’t pick and choose who you marry,” one clerk told local media. “It would be discrimination.” Instead, she chose to eliminate the service altogether. It might not meet the legal definition of “discrimination,” but the clerk’s decision is a painful reminder to many same-sex couples that they weren’t, and still aren’t welcome.
When the Gainesville clerk informed me that the service had been discontinued in 2014, well before the Supreme Court mandated marriage equality, it was almost a relief. But that still leaves us – and the good citizens of Gainesville – with dwindling venues to celebrate weddings that reflect their values and beliefs. While this particular decision was a matter of staffing and budgets, it’s still one less option on the table.
“They told us to find an ordained minister,” Frank told me. “And that’s when I remembered that I was an ordained minister with American Marriage Ministries.”
With thousands of ministers joining AMM every week, couples whose values don’t align with mainstream institutions have access to a growing network of ministers who can marry them, hopefully offsetting the decline in courthouses offering the service.
And isn’t that also quintessentially American, having private citizens step in to handle matters instead of the government? We’ll let our readers answer that on your own terms, but even Ronald Reagan would see the value in what we do.
It’s stories like Frank and Joseph’s that underscore how important our online ordinations are for marriage equality. While I was honored to officiate this particular wedding, there are thousands of other AMM ministers across the state of Georgia who are equally committed to building community and celebrating love through marriage. And we’re always ready for more to join our ranks.
The Supreme Court's decision affirmed marriage as a fundamental right, and the government’s role is to enforce those rights - not strip them or pull back the minute they include people that were born with same-sex attraction.
We stood in Frank and Joseph’s living room, surrounded by close friends, and I spoke those powerful words. “And so, by the authority vested in me by American Marriage Ministries and the State of Georgia,” I said, with all the solemnity and authority of a government official, a religious authority, and legally empowered officiant, “I now pronounce you lawfully wedded husbands.”