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Internet church sues Tennessee over law barring ministers ordained online from performing weddings


The Universal Life Church Monastery, an Internet church that ordains ministers online, is suing Tennessee over a new law that would bar ministers ordained electronically from performing weddings in the state.

The law, passed by the Tennessee House in April, stipulates that “persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony.” Tennessee legislators who advocated for the bill argued that it would bring greater clarity to the process of getting married in the state, partly by reducing the number of possible officiants, according to the Times Free Press. The law is set to take effect July 1.

The ULC, which has ordained more than 20 million people since it went online in 1999, has become a popular avenue for people who want to get married by friends or family who are not ordained by an institutional faith group. ULC presiding chaplain George Martin Freeman said the group continues to ordain more than 1,000 new ministers online every day. Celebrities including Conan O’Brien and Joan Rivers have received online ordinations via the ULC.

The ULC filed suit against four Tennessee county clerks and the state’s attorney general in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on June 24, according to Freeman. Late Monday evening, the ULC also filed a restraining order asking the court to bar Tennessee from enforcing its law until the ULC’s suit proceeds.

The suit charges that Tennessee’s law violates the U.S. Constitution, as well as segments of the state’s Constitution. It alleges the law goes against the First Amendment by discriminating against certain religions and against the 14th Amendment by denying members of the Universal Life Church their rights under due process of law.

“Tennessee said, ‘No, get out, stay out, we don’t believe in you,’ ” Freeman said in an interview Tuesday. “But the Constitution is on our side.”

The ULC’s mission is to empower people around the world to “take control of their spiritual lives and do good” in the world by becoming ministers, no matter their religious beliefs, according to its website. Anyone anywhere, ranging from “Druids to non-faith people to Quakers to Islamic believers,” should be able to perform weddings, Freeman said.

The Tennessee county clerks named in the suit include Lisa Duke Crowell of Rutherford County, William K. Knowles of Hamilton County, Wayne Nabors of Putnam County and Elaine Anderson of Williamson County, and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III. County clerks are responsible for issuing marriage licenses, though they do not necessarily check the credentials of the officiant who performed the wedding.

Robert Miller, one of the attorneys representing the ULC in the case, said the ULC selected which county clerks to name in the suit partly because three ULC ministers named as plaintiffs in the suit in addition to the ULC itself — Erin Patterson, Gabriel Biser and James Welch — live in those counties and want to officiate marriages there. Patterson, Biser and Welch volunteered to join the suit out of a desire to help fight the law and vindicate their rights as ministers, Miller said.

The ULC sued the Tennessee attorney general because “it’s a state issue, as we are suing to prevent a state law from going into effect,” Miller said.

Crowell, Nabors, Anderson and Knowles declined to comment about the suit Tuesday. Slatery did not respond to a request for comment.

“I’m not going to say anything about that, hon, but thanks for calling,” Anderson said.

Crowell and Nabors also would not say whether they agree with the new Tennessee law.

“Personally, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to follow state law,” Crowell said.

“I will not say, because I trust the wisdom of those who are legislators,” Nabors said. “They represent the constituents of the state of Tennessee. If it passed, that means it passed.”

Freeman said he and the ULC think Tennessee’s new law barring online ministers forms part of a broader national movement by state officials against online ordination. He said the ULC has noticed pockets of resistance to its work popping up around the country in recent years, especially in Southern locales.

To date, Tennessee is the only state that has passed a law barring weddings performed by ministers ordained online, according to Freeman. But in other states, individual clerks or commissioners are increasingly denying ministers ordained through the ULC the ability to perform marriages through various means on a case-by-case basis, such as denying marriage licenses, he said.

The ULC knows this pattern is taking place because it hears regular reports from its ministers spread across the country, who number roughly 10 million, according to Freeman.

Freeman said the ULC is preparing suits against Virginia and Pennsylvania over those states’ resistance to ministers ordained online. The church plans to file those suits sometime in the next 90 days. The ULC in late 2018 sued a county clerk’s office in Nevada over its policy that ministers ordained online could not perform more than five marriages a year.

The litigation against Tennessee is the ULC’s flagship effort in the fight to preserve online ordination in America, Freeman said.

“It’s the central battleground,” he said. “We’re using Tennessee as a launching pad before we move into other states. Any state that’s in the Union, we’ll sue. We have to fight for our rights.”

Receiving an ordination from the ULC is free, though you must be at least 18. It requires that you enter a few basic pieces of information, including your legal name and your email address and takes a few minutes. After filling out the online form, you receive a confirmation email that counts as proof of your ordination, according to the ULC website.

The ULC is headquartered in Seattle. The nonprofit is funded entirely by sales from its online store, which markets church supplies, such as collared minister shirts, choir robes and an honorary religious degree. Freeman declined to say how much the ULC makes in sales each year.