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New Tennessee Marriage Law is an Attack On Religious Freedom, and Rights Of Non-Traditional Ministers

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Tennessee’s legislature has passed a law that takes away the rights of non-traditional ministers to officiate weddings. The new law, SB1377/HB0213, is the sort of government overreach that our founding fathers warned of, and represents a massive step back for religious freedom. 

Effective July 1, 2019, the government of Tennessee has made itself the arbiter of which ministers can, and can’t perform marriage in the state, stripping away the rights of tens-of-thousands of online-ordained ministers.  

And that’s not all. With the same stroke of his pen, Governor Bill Lee turned Tennessee’s thousands of bureaucrats, government officers, and elected officials into wedding officiants. You heard that right: the new law literally strips private citizens of their rights to officiate weddings, and hands them directly to government bureaucrats. 

Public opposition is already growing to the bill, which was snuck through the legislature with almost no public notice. Couples are outraged because the bill takes away their religious freedom, eliminating the right to choose who marries them. 

Under the new bill, couples will be restricted to established churches and government officials. Tennessee couples may no longer choose the type of religious ceremony they want, and who they want to perform their ceremony. 

According to the Tennessee General Assembly website, the new law “authorizes members of the general assembly, duly appointed law enforcement chaplains, and members of the legislative body of a municipality to solemnize marriages.” In other words, if you work for the state government, you probably just became a wedding officiant. 

The state’s website also states that the new law “prohibits persons receiving online ordinations from solemnizing the rite of matrimony.” That means that if you were ordained online by American Marriage Ministries, or one of many other religious or spiritual institutions offering online ordination, your rights have been taken away.

This presents a very serious problem if you have a wedding planned this summer because in just one month, that marriage will no longer be legally recognized, according to the new law. “They [the couple] will have to find a religious leader connected to an authorized religious institution, or elected official to perform their wedding,” one county clerk told us. Other clerks we talked to gave similar advice. 

We reached out to Representatives Ken Yager and Ron Travis, who sponsored the bill. We asked them how our ministers can continue with their spiritual mission of performing marriage and what couples and ministers should do if they have already paid for and painstakingly planned for wedding ceremonies. We also asked why he thought it was necessary for the state to arbitrate strictly spiritual matters. As of publication, neither has repsponded.

Until we receive a response from Rep. Travis, we urge our ministers in Tennessee and couples impacted by this development to take the following steps:

1. Contact your local county clerk and ask them how you are to proceed with weddings that are already planned. Be sure to ask them what steps you can take to ensure that your ordination is recognized, or if not, what you should do.

2. Contact your local representative and voice your opposition to this new law. The law seems to have been passed with little publicity or debate, and we suspect that most representatives were unaware of how their vote would negatively impact their constituents. 

3. File a complaint with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission. Explain that this new law allows the state to arbitrate religious decisions that only individuals can make. Only the couple should be allowed to decide what sort of religious leader can perform their wedding. Under the new law, this decision has been granted to government officials.

We will be following the developments surrounding this law, and will continue to post updates here at American Weddings, and in the Minister Registration section of our website. We thank all of our ministers for their continued support and commitment to the ideals of our founding fathers; that every person has the right to practice spirituality and religion in a way that aligns with their personal values and beliefs, and not as decided by bureaucrats. 

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