by Lauren Means
Nashville, Tenn. – On May 21, 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed House Bill 213 which revokes the right of ordained officiants to solemnize the rite of matrimony if their ordination was obtained online. Going into effect on July 1st, this bill authorizes only members of the general assembly, duly appointed law enforcement chaplains, and members of the legislative body of a municipality to solemnize marriages in addition to the clergy of brick and mortar religious institutions.
While the reasoning provided by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, for his vote to pass the bill is to help prevent people from being scammed, some may wonder if this is a form of discrimination against non-traditional couples, LGBT+ couples in particular, looking to marry.
Most non-traditional couples want to be married by someone who shares their personally held beliefs and values. Many times this excludes traditional officiants you would find in most religious institutions. Here in the South, it may also exclude members of local government as we struggle to achieve equality in other facets of our day-to-day life.
Blurring Lines Between Church and State
Back in April, there was a discussion on this bill where it was evident that some government officials made it clear they would deny requests from certain people based on ”religious reasons”. As the Times Free Press reported on April 8, 2019, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, asked “[…] do I have any protections should I say no if someone would ask me will you marry us and I say no? What are the legal clarity protections to me when I say no? Are there any legal protections that are afforded to me?”. She went as far as asking “I guess what I’m rising to speak to is the religious liberties that I would like to be [permitted] to say no.”
The provided solution from Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, to her concern about having to potentially marry someone she does not see fit to be legally wed, was to add an amendment that required government officials to “opt-in” instead of them automatically having the ability to “solemnize the rite of matrimony”. While this might appear to be a solution to officials being able to discriminate, it actually provides yet another hurdle for LGBT+ and other non-traditional couples to jump in order to get married. Here in the South, it will shrink the pool of officiants to supportive government officials, affirming churches and religious institutions, and individuals who are willing to go through all the red tape to become ordained through a brick and mortar religious institution.
Voting in Favor of Discrimination
It is interesting to note that three of the four sponsors of HB213 (Rep. Ron Travis R-Dayton, Rep. Clark Boyd R-Lebanon, Rep. Mark White R-Memphis) voted in favor of all the bills that were part of the Tennessee Equality Project’s “Slate of Hate” for the 2018-2019 legislative session. The Sponsor of its companion bill Senate Bill 1377, Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, also voted in favor of the “Slate of Hate” bills that came across his desk.
So instead of fixing what they say is the problem with online ordainments, they simply left couples scrambling for officiants and left officiants scrambling to replace lost income. Instead of outlawing ALL online ordainments, why not require online churches and sites that provide ordainment to become registered through the state of Tennessee. It really would be no different than a member of the general assembly filing their intent to preside over weddings. This could even provide revenue for the state by requiring online services to pay a fee to be registered by the state. This is what makes this new law appear to be discriminatory and not simply protecting Tennesseans from being scammed as was the guise in which it was presented.