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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Tennessee's Unconstitutional Meddling in Religious Practices

In 2019 the state of Tennessee enacted a law outlawing weddings officiated by anyone ordained via the internet. This is, thus far, the clearest restriction against marriages by ministers ordained in this fashion in any state. Other states have some challenging requirements, and there are municipalities like New York City that require extra documentation, including a letter of good standing from the ordaining body, but these are navigable. An outright ban is something else, and to me it is obviously in violation of the 1st Amendment to the United States constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is not the place of the government to determine what constitutes a 'valid' religion. While the state certainly has a valid interest in maintaining accurate vital records, the role of the officiant is minimal. Generally it's a matter of the officiant having the couple declare their commitment before at least two witnesses who in turn sign the license. The license itself was issued by the county clerk, and aside from officiating the minister is then usually responsible for filing the document with the county clerk. That's it. There's no specialized training required to make a marriage valid outside of meeting the basic requirements. 

Thus, it makes no sense that a state government would intervene in the matter of how a minister was ordained, unless the intention is to intervene in defining what types of religious practice are 'acceptable,' and setting standards for religious societies as to who should be endorsed and by what means. 


The published decision in Universal Life Church Monastery v. Nabors (originating case No. 2:19-cv-00049) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a series of arguments made by various Tennessee state and county officials who had hoped to remove themselves as defendants in the ongoing litigation.

What this means is that the case will continue to work its way through the court system. It's been three years since the unconstitutional law was passed, and it could be some time until resolution is found, but at least there is some progress. 

As I am endorsed by the Humanist Society, through a deliberative process that required meeting certain qualifications, this Tennessee law really wouldn't affect me. Then again, since I don't foresee officiating a wedding in Tennessee any time soon, it doesn't matter anyway. At the same time, I am deeply concerned about this law and hope to see it overturned, as it really is, in my opinion, a violation of freedom of religion. This had to have been passed solely to please conventionally religious people (aka evangelicals) in the state.

For more on the Universal Life Church, I recommend the following video.