Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marriage Laws and the State of Tennessee

I now pronounce you ... completely flabbergasted! Never before planning our wedding did I realize how restrictive some state's marriage laws are written.  Let me preface this post by saying we are fortunate to be able to get married. Some people don't have that right and it is truly disheartening. I realize that gay marriage and civil unions are many years away for the Bible Belt states, but Tennessee makes it difficult for heterosexual couples who aren't religious to marry as well. Unless of course you want a complete stranger performing your non-religious ceremony and if that is the case, read no further.

Before you call bullshit on me, I'll give you a run down of our officiant journey: One of the first things that drew Big Spoon to my online profile was the fact that I had listed myself as an agnostic. Typically, I would have left that section blank, but after years of struggling to understand what I do and don't believe, something in me must have decided it was time to own up to the fact that my personal belief system does not match those of my religious upbringing.

Without going into a big discussion about religion and inadvertently offending some of our readers (including my family), I will say that Big Spoon and I came from vastly different backgrounds but ended up in essentially the same place, religiously speaking. He just became more educated in the process, receiving an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies.

Taking all of the above into account, it is really important to us to have a marriage ceremony devoid of any mention of God, Jesus, Muhammad, Yahweh, Zeus, Q,  whomever. It is also important to us to have someone we know and care about solemnize our marriage. And that's where the trouble starts.

The T.C.A marriage laws are vague at best, and at worst, restrictive. Maybe I'm not interpreting them correctly, I'm certainly no lawyer. However, I'd like to include here a list of the information I've gathered based on our needs, which is a legal marriage solemnized by someone we know.

• The county clerk cannot require proof that an officiant is, in fact, a minister or other authorized person. Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. 87-151 (9/17/87).

• The traditional marriage rite of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), whereby the parties simply pledge their vows one to another in the presence of the congregation, constitutes an equally effective solemnization.

 • ULC ordinations (and in some readings, all online ordinations) are not recognized by the State of Tennessee, but that isn't actually written into law. It's based on interpretation of the law. Unless your marriage came up after death, during an inheritance case or divorce, the State isn't going to challenge your marriage.

 • Your choices are a religious leader or a state official. There are no in-betweens like public notary or a one-time pass like California offers, for example. According to general sessions court of Davidson Co., you cannot go through court to obtain a "one-time" pass for a lay-person to perform a marriage ceremony.

 • In the State of Tennessee, you may apply for a marriage license in any county and marry in any county, regardless of where you live. I can't find a link to prove this, so check with your county clerk's office.

 • Your minister does not have to turn in your marriage license. You may turn it in yourself, just be sure to do it within 3 days of your ceremony so that it is legal. (I called the Davidson County clerk's office and asked this question specifically.)

After considering many creative options, we are still trying to decide what is both right for us and what is legal. My current fury at the State of Tennessee and it's "laws" is palpable (by the way, we did receive international recognition for our dumb-ass-ery over the new handgun bill.) It's as if the state's law makers got together and decided they would intentionally ignore the rights of anyone who deviates from the norm. We have a right to get married by someone we have a personal relationship with. Everyone does.

To tell you what we'd really like to see happen is our friend Ryan performing the ceremony, it be legal and call it a day. It's not likely to go down that way. We can "interpret" the law to suit our needs, but there is still a level of uncomfortableness with doing so. There are a few "online ministries" out there - including First Nation Ministry- that seem quite legitimate and say that it's legal to perform weddings in Tennessee. Granted, they are getting about $39.99 a pop for these certificates. Our one other favorite option is to ask an old mentor of mine from High School days who is currently the mayor of my hometown. We could even have them both.

I'll keep you updated. Any lawyers out there who can help us out or give us a more clear explanation of any of the above, PLEASE feel free to drop us a line. Or two. Or seven.

Links you can use:

T.C.A. Marriage Laws, Davidson Co. Clerk's webpage
TN County Clerk List
Marriage Laws by State
50-State Rundown on Gay Marriage Laws
article about states who do not recognize "online" ordinations
First Nation Ministry - State Marriage Laws / Wedding Officiants

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