Tennessee law restricts online ordinations

TWH –  Tennessee recently passed a law that would reject the credential of clergy ordained online. This “No Online Clergy Credentials” law would strip clergy ordained online of their legal status as clergy.

Clergy ordained in face-to-face ceremonies would retain their status as clergy. While this law would fail to impact many pastoral duties, clergy ordained online would lose the ability to perform legally binding weddings. This “No Online Clergy Credentials” law may make it more difficult for members of four groups to find clergy for their marriages: Pagans, LGBT+ people, non-English speakers, and people wanting personalized weddings.

Before “No Online Clergy Credentials” became law, Tennessee did not distinguish between online and face-to-face ordinations. Legislators feared that divorce lawyers would use online credentials to challenge the validity of the marriage.

At least, two organizations perform online ordinations: The American Marriage Ministries (AMM) and the Universal Life Church (ULC).


The AMM sent four staff members to Tennessee. These staff members were on a 10-day tour to conduct face-to-face ordinations. These ordinations would allow their ministers to comply with the new law. In those 10-days, AMM performed 1,600 face-to-face ordinations.

According to NPR, AMM’s ordinations included that of a transgender man. He wanted to ensure that transgender and non-binary people would be able to have dignified weddings.

The new law was to go into effect July 1, 2019. The ULC filed suit against the state of Tennessee and several Tennessee counties on June 21. This lawsuit charges that this law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On July 3, a federal court issued a temporary restraining order. That order prevents the enforcement of this law.

In an interview with the Washington Post, George M. Freeman, ULC presiding chaplain, mentioned Druids as a group that this law could harm.

In early August, ULC announced that it would file a similar suit against North Carolina. That state recently passed a law similar to that of Tennessee. While these suits challenge law at the state level, similar problems occur at the county level. Some county clerks have refused to recognize the credentials of clergy ordained online. ULC has reported problems with counties in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and upstate New York. AMM has also reported problems with county clerks.

Possible impacts

Lewis King, Executive Director, AMM said that the “No Online Clergy Credentials” law would “make it hard, or even impossible, for folks outside of mainstream churches to find officiants that share their values, beliefs, and worldviews.” According to King, this law sets a precedent for interference in religious practices. He said “State legislatures don’t get to decide which religious practices are acceptable and which ones aren’t.”

Lewis King, Executive Director, American Marriage Ministries [Courtesy]

“Pagans are precisely the sort of group that is being discriminated against by this law, since many AMM officiants being stripped of their rights are Pagan,” King continued. Based on his conversations with dozens of Pagan clergy, King believes that many Pagan clergy won’t be able to perform their pastoral duties of conducting weddings. He predicted that Pagan couples would have go out of state “if they want to enjoy the same rights as their Christian compatriots.” This unnecessary travel will add to the cost of the ceremony and could limit who could attend.

This “No Online Clergy Credentials” law will have no impact on Pagan clergy ordained face-to-face. For example, Reverend Mother Archdruid Angela Wilson feels her ordination is secure. She did report that the law disturbed other Tennessee Pagans. Wilson said that “Local Pagans seemed to try and scramble to get someone somewhere to ordain them. I would say the overall response was shock, anger and panic.” Wilson reported that AMM’s face-to-face ordinations were widely publicized. She felt that this law was “being driven by the evangelical right.”

King stressed how a personalized wedding could benefit some couples. “In cases where the couple really wants to create something unique,” he stated “there’s no substitute for a friend or family member that shares their history and worldview.” King continued, “Folks want an ordained minister, they want the spiritual component, but they want it on their terms.”

King also pointed out problems for people who mainly speak a language other than English. Limited English language skills tends to limit social connections. It may be difficult to find clergy fluent in Arabic, Hindi, or Spanish in rural areas.

Immigration and language issues in Tennessee

According the American Community Survey, in 2017 about 6.7 million people lived in Tennessee. Almost 6% of people over 18 in Tennessee were born outside the US. This 6% does not include people born in Puerto Rico, other US territories, or on Native American land. While born in the US, they may most comfortably speak a language other than English.

In 2017, about 7% of all households in Tennessee spoke a language other than English. Among all Tennessee households, 3.8% spoke Spanish. About 1.5% spoke some other Indo-European language. About 1.2% of households spoke an Asian or Pacific Islander language and 0.6% spoke some other language. About 25% of people in Spanish-speaking households described their skills in English as limited. Among Asian and Pacific Islander households, 21.5% described their skills in English as limited.  There is no estimate for Pagan, Heathens and polytheists.

Underlying economics

According to King, “Tennessee has more mega-churches than any other state in the US.” He then discussed the underlying economics. He said, “Online ordination disrupts the Church’s oligopoly on the officiating game. Weddings are big business, and there’s no doubt that offering couples a free alternative cuts into their bottom line. But that’s the whole point! Why go to a church and pay hundreds for the service (and possibly much more for the space) if you can have something much more meaningful in your backyard.”

Individuals who experience a refusal to recognize online credentials are encouraged to contact AMM or ULC.

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