Lawfully Wedded?

Lawfully Wedded?

As a legal challenge holds up a law on marriage officiating, some ask why the state gets to say who’s allowed to administer the vows.

by jesse fox mayshark • july 2, 2019


a sign outside the american marriage ministries in-person ordination event last wednesday at blue slip winery in knoxville.

The first time a friend asked Steve Dupree to perform a wedding ceremony, Dupree laughed it off. Also the second and third times.

A lawsuit says Tennessee's new ordination law is unconstitutional.

“People kept asking me to officiate their weddings, which I thought was silly,” said Dupree, a Knoxville actor, writer and man-about-town. He had signed up for an online ordination through the Universal Life Church as a lark with some colleagues at work one day. He enjoyed bringing out the certificate to surprise his friends. He had no intention of marrying anyone.

But eventually, two friends -- motorcycle-riding buddies -- wore down Dupree’s resistance. He was ordained, after all. And with his booming voice, the son of an AME minister was plenty comfortable standing up and orating in front of crowds.

So, he reluctantly agreed to perform what he assumed would be a one-off ceremony. But Dupree has a lot of friends, and as it turned out, a lot of them were getting married. In the past 20 years, he estimates he has officiated about 100 weddings, most of them in the state of Tennessee.

It is important to him to work with each couple to create the ceremony.

“I generally will present them with some options,” he said. “There are thousands upon thousands of vows pre-written and available on the internet, and I will tell them that they can choose something that’s already written, or they can choose one or modify it, or they can write their own. It’s their wedding.”

But as of this week, the online ordinations that Dupree and thousands of other Tennesseans have used to solemnize marriages for friends, family and acquaintances are no longer recognized by the state.

A law passed by the Legislature earlier this year, which was primarily aimed at allowing state legislators to perform weddings, included a line that said, “Persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony.”

The law is currently held up by a legal challenge, with a hearing scheduled for tomorrow.

Incredulous and Insulted

Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, who sponsored the bill, said during legislative discussion that the restriction was intended to ensure that people who “don’t do any training whatsoever” wouldn’t be able to perform weddings. It was partly prompted by a state attorney general’s opinion that cast doubt on whether online ordinations met the state’s requirements for such officiating.

The new law clarifies that any wedding performed before July 1 of this year by someone with an online ordination is valid under Tennessee law -- but it prohibits them after July 1.

Steve Dupree

Steve Dupree preparing to officiate a wedding.

Dupree said he was incredulous when he first heard about the law, and insulted, too.

“If they want to come and tell me how I’m not a real minister, then I’m going to ask them certain pointed questions,” he said. “How exactly do they communicate with God, so that God -- as they understand Her -- can inform them the ways in which She is willing to call someone to the ministry?”

From early on, Dupree said, he has taken care to counsel each couple. He tells them that he only wants to perform weddings for people who are already “married” -- that is, already fully committed to each other and to building a life together. 

“That marriage is what the wedding celebrates,” he said. “If you are not married, there’s no reason to have a wedding. And there’s no priest or preacher or anybody else who can wave their hand over you and change that.”

(He does not personally take credit for it, but he said that 90-plus percent of the couples he has wed are still married.)

Although Dupree has never been married himself, his experiences talking to couples led him to write a short marriage counseling book, called Before You Take the Plunge. Since publishing it in 2011, he has assigned it for reading to those who ask him to perform their ceremonies.

Among them were Jodie Manross and Russell Tanenbaum, whose wedding Dupree officiated in 2012. 

“He did a gorgeous job and he just had exactly the right tone,” Manross said of Dupree. “He was the person I was hoping for.”

Manross had lived in Knoxville for 10 years before moving to New York City, where she met Tanenbaum. Before she left town, she had seen Dupree -- whom she knew socially -- perform a wedding, and had thought, “If I ever get married, I would love if Steve Dupree performed our ceremony.”

When she moved back to Knoxville with financé in tow, she told Tanenbaum she had an officiant in mind.

“It was awesome. He was incredibly collaborative,” Tanenbaum said. “The ceremony itself was really beautiful. He had a fantastic presence, and it was an honor to have him as part of our ceremony.”

Tanenbaum, in turn, has performed four wedding ceremonies himself. He is also ordained through the Universal Life Church, which operates one of the two largest online ordination sites. The other is American Marriage Ministries. Both are non-denominational and headquartered in Seattle. 

Tanenbaum performed his sister’s wedding and has also officiated for friends. “It’s a huge honor,” he said. “The first thing I want to do is sit down with them and ask what they’re looking for.”

In one case, for a multi-national couple, he even learned to speak part of the ceremony in German. He said the groom’s German family members were touched and impressed. 

Tanenbaum said the new law amounts to the state dictating what qualifies as a religious ceremony.

“As a spiritual but not religious person, my wedding was exactly the way I wanted it,” he said. “It’s a shame that other people who want that aren’t going to have access to that.”

The Pushback

Or will they?

Since news of the new law broke at the end of the legislative session, there has been substantial pushback. The Universal Life Church first criticized the statute and then filed suit last week to block it.

ULC alleges that the law violates the 1st Amendment’s separation of church and state, since it puts the state in the position of treating some churches as more legitimate than others, as well as the 14th Amendment’s protection of due process.

A hearing is scheduled for tomorrow in Middle Tennessee on ULC’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the new law from taking effect until the lawsuit is resolved. According to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed a response Monday that argued against the restraining order. 

Meanwhile, American Marriage Ministries took a more direct approach, flying most of its staff from Seattle to Tennessee last week and holding daylong, in-person ordination sessions in cities across the state.

"Nothing like this has ever happened anywhere in the country. This is the first time this kind of explicit amendment has come to pass," said AMM President Glen Yoshioka, between signing ordinations for dozens of people at Blue Slip Winery on West Jackson Avenue last Wednesday afternoon. "So we figured out that we needed to help all these people that had these weddings planned over the summer. They just got thrown under the bus." 

He said AMM has more than 600,000 ordained ministers nationwide, with at least 13,000 in Tennessee.

Yoshioka said he is confident the in-person certifications -- which are identical to the forms people fill out on AMM’s website -- will satisfy the new law, which prohibits only online ordination. In the long term, he said AMM will work to overturn the law either through the Legislature or in court.

Among the many who received AMM certificates in Knoxville last week were friends Martha Knowles of Oak Ridge and Joel Kintsle of Murfreesboro. 

“I am upset because I think this is a religion and state issue, and they shouldn’t even be involved,” Knowles said of the Legislature. “So I’m sort of coming and getting ordained as a protest.”

Kintsle, a high school teacher, already had an online ordination from AMM and has performed one wedding ceremony.

“I would like to be able to continue to do weddings if they crop up,” he said. “I wanted to keep that avenue open, and I also wanted to make clear that I am not a fan of that law.” 

Also ordained Wednesday by AMM was Dupree. Although he said he’s been pulling back on performing ceremonies, he wanted to keep the option. While receiving the paper in person should protect him and anyone he marries from legal complications, it did nothing to soften his views of the new law.

“This is, in my opinion, why the founders put that in the Constitution,” Dupree said of the separation of church and state. “If you set up something, anything, that says you’re going to approve of religion, then it’s not between the individual and God anymore.”