Tennessee Lawmakers Aim To Ban Weddings By Internet-Ordained Ministers

Jul 13, 2019
Originally published on July 13, 2019 1:34 pm

When Andrea and Leslie Isham got married in December of last year, they had a pretty unique wedding.

"We literally went into the bar, we paid the cover charge," Leslie Isham says. "We walked through the doors and sat down and just waited for the show."

The "show" was a drag show, the backdrop to the couple's wedding at a gay nightclub in Clarksville, Tenn., alongside friends, drag queens, bartenders — and like-minded strangers.

"We didn't have to worry about protesters showing up, or people being like, 'We don't want that here,' " Andrea Isham says.

The friend who officiated their wedding also played matchmaker when the Ishams first got together, so the couple says they saw her as the perfect person to solemnize their vows.

That friend was also ordained online.

In Tennessee, a new law that was set to go into effect July 1 aimed to prohibit using an internet minister to certify a wedding — a move critics say is meant to target LGBTQ people.

Just two days later, though, a federal judge hit the pause button on the law, saying online-ordained ministers could continue to perform legal marriages, at least temporarily. That's after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of four ordained ministers in Tennessee who say the law is unconstitutional.

Lawmakers and other supporters of the ban have said that weddings performed by internet-ordained ministers have been happening through a legal loophole, anyway. "Right now, it is not clear under the eyes of the law whether or not those are legal marriages," Republican Rep. Michael Curcio, said during the debate on the measure in the state legislature.

The new law confirms that marriages officiated before July 1, 2019, by internet ministers will still be recognized.

Meanwhile, American Marriage Ministries, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded with the sole purpose of ordaining people online, has responded by coming to Tennessee to perform seven mass in-person ordinations across the state.

"Even if you are, say, a mainstream evangelical Christian who's got a minister, do you want your minister performing weddings for people that don't share his values or beliefs?" says Lewis King, the organization's executive director. "It just doesn't make sense for anybody."

At an event in Clarksville last month, American Marriage Ministries facilitated more than 100 in-person ordinations to get ahead of the impending law.

"There's a lot of legislation that comes out of Tennessee that really limits and restricts our rights and abilities to kind of function as citizens," says Kesley Page, a transgender man from the small town of Bumpus Mills, Tenn., northwest of Nashville. "To me, I saw this as just another one."

Page attended one of the recent in-person ordinations in order to provide his services to transgender and nonbinary people who want to wed.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Tennessee, ministers who were ordained online can still officiate weddings. A new law was set to stop that practice, but it's now in the courts. Critics of the law say it's a violation of First Amendment rights. If it goes into effect, it could leave LGBTQ people in rural and suburban communities without anyone to conduct their weddings. Sergio Martinez-Beltran of member station WPLN reports.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: The wedding ceremony of Leslie and Andrea Isham was unique.

LESLIE ISHAM: We literally went into the bar. We paid the cover charge. We walked through the doors and sat down and just waited for the show.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: They got married in the middle of a drag show at a gay nightclub in Clarksville, Tenn. They were with friends, drag queens, bartenders and, of course, random people. The couple says they chose a gay club because it's a place where they feel safe and not judged.

ANDREA ISHAM: We didn't have to worry about, you know, protesters showing up or, you know, people being like, you know, we don't want that here. We were surrounded by friends and surrounded by people that understand the lifestyle.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Overseeing the wedding was their friend, an Internet-ordained minister. The Ishams say that friend played matchmaker and pushed for the couple to go on dates, so she was the perfect person to solemnize their vows.

What was your favorite part of the wedding day?

L ISHAM: Her saying I do and being able to go home and live our lives.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: A law that was supposed to go into effect July 1, though, would have changed that. The measure prohibits hiring an Internet minister to certify a wedding in Tennessee. But just last week, a federal judge ruled the state must continue to let online-ordained ministers perform weddings until a final ruling. Now, backers of the law say those ceremonies only happened because of a legal loophole.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL CURCIO: Right now, it is not clear under the eyes of the law whether or not those are legal marriages.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: That's state representative Michael Curcio. He says the new law confirms that marriages officiated in the state before July 1 by Internet ministers will still be recognized. As the new law is written, only priests, rabbis - in other words, someone designated through a religion - and public officials will be allowed to perform weddings. Another organization pushing back on the law is American Marriage Ministries. The group has been performing mass in-person ordinations, rather than online, across the state in response to the new law.

LEWIS KING: So here's a pen. Here's the application. Take your time.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Lewis King is the executive director of American Marriage Ministries. The Seattle-based nonprofit was founded with the sole purpose of ordaining people online. King points out not everyone identifies with a religion, and online ordinations provide options. He says religious groups may also benefit from online ordination, especially those that oppose same-sex marriage.

KING: Even if you're, say, a mainstream evangelical Christian who's got a minister, do you want your minister performing weddings, you know, for people that don't share his values and beliefs? It just doesn't make sense for anybody.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Someone wanting to provide more spaces for LGBTQ members is Kesley Page, a transgender man from Bumpus Mills, a small town northwest of Nashville. He got certified at one of the in-person ordinations. He says the law's main target is the LGBTQ community.

KESLEY PAGE: There's a lot of legislation that comes in and out, definitely of Tennessee, that really limits and restricts our rights and abilities to kind of function as citizens. So to me, I saw this as just, like, another one.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Page says that as a minister ordained in person, he plans on counseling and helping trans and nonbinary people get married. Meanwhile, American Marriage Ministries says they will keep ordaining people in Tennessee and are considering doing it through snail mail.

For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.