The four Internet church ministers, on a road trip across Tennessee to ordain more than 1,500 people in less than 10 days, fight about only one thing: Carly Rae Jepsen.
The ministers in the rented Dodge minivan work for American Marriage Ministries, an Internet church based in Seattle that ordains and trains people to officiate at weddings. Since it was founded in 2009, the nonprofit has operated entirely online, becoming a popular option for people who are not clergy but want to officiate at the wedding of a friend or family member.
For the first time, AMM ministers are performing in-person ordinations at rapid speed after Tennessee passed a law that bars ministers ordained online from solemnizing weddings in the state.
The law is set to take effect July 1, though it faces legal hurdles: Another Internet church, the Universal Life Church Monastery, last week sued Tennessee, claiming the new law is unconstitutional. Noah Feldman, a Harvard professor of constitutional law, said he thinks the online church’s argument is “meritorious” and could succeed in court.
But in the meantime — following a deluge of desperate Facebook messages and emails from AMM-ordained ministers slated to perform July weddings in Tennessee — the church decided it had to act, according to Executive Director Lewis King, 35, one of four people on the road trip.
“We didn’t see a lot of alternatives other than coming here and providing ordinations as a short-term solution,” King said. “Ministers were panicking, saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ Couples started calling us up, too. We’ve heard from thousands at this point.”
AMM, which has ordained more than 630,000 people in the United States, has about 13,400 active ministers in Tennessee, according to King. The church is not affiliated with any particular religion but instead welcomes applicants of all kinds — including atheists — in an effort to ensure that every engaged couple can find an officiant who shares their values. Ministers are “a cross-country network of people who practice spirituality on their own terms and help others do the same,” Lewis said.
After researching Tennessee’s marriage laws, King and his colleagues came up with a plan: They converted AMM’s free online ordination application into a print document and tweaked a few sections. Anyone who signed the papers in the presence of at least one AMM minister could continue officiating weddings in Tennessee after July 1.
The ministers printed 1,000 ordination applications (they later had to order more), packed 150 copies of their flagship book, the navy blue “Minister’s Manual,” into a suitcase (they later shipped more of those, too) and hopped on a flight to Nashville.
By June 21, they were on the road. They plan to keep driving until June 29, stopping in the most populous parts of the state and advertising their in-person ordination sessions on social media as they go. So far, the foursome has hit up five cities, ordained more than 1,000 people and logged more than 1,300 miles.
That’s where Carly Rae Jepsen came in.
Early on, King decreed the road-trippers would listen only to music produced by AMM ministers. Jepsen, who got ordained through AMM in March 2017 to officiate at her friends’ wedding, is by far the highest-profile musical affiliate of the Internet church.
“I’m a huge Carly Rae Jepsen fan,” King said. “I can do six hours of Carly Rae Jepsen every day. But I’m getting some pushback.”
By and large, though, the trip has been harmonious.
“This has really opened my eyes in a lot of ways,” said Glen Yoshioka, 36, the founder of AMM who is also along for the road trip. “We shake hands. We meet people. We see just how grateful they are. . . . Ironically, in a way, the state of Tennessee has shown us the value of what we offer.”
Bobby Prince, 45, has appreciated AMM’s work for years — since he and his husband, both residents of Chattanooga, Tenn., struggled to find someone to officiate at their wedding, which was held in another state before same-sex marriage became legal nationwide in June 2015. The duo suffered “shame, embarrassment and humiliation,” Prince said, as pastor after pastor turned them away.
Eventually, Prince found an AMM-ordained minister who was happy to perform their ceremony. Prince decided to get ordained through AMM himself to prevent anyone else from “going through what we went through,” he said.
Nowadays, Prince, a regional manager for a restaurant chain, officiates at as many as four weddings a month, advertising his services via word of mouth. He said roughly half of his clientele is LGBTQ, but he is happy to help anyone who is having trouble getting hitched.
“This law would make it almost impossible for people of diverse backgrounds that don’t celebrate the same religions as their local churches to get married,” Prince said. “AMM really came to the rescue.”
Legislators who support the law have said it is meant to clarify the marriage process in Tennessee by reducing the number of people able to perform weddings in the state, according to the Times Free Press. Several state lawmakers who advocated for or introduced the bill did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.
Prince was reordained by the road-trippers at the Hampton Inn Conference Center in Chattanooga. He said the ordination was fast and easy, requiring only a few signatures, but the whole process took about two hours because the line was so long.
No matter where the foursome sets up shop — in hotels, park pavilions or, once, a winery — they are flooded with Tennesseans eager to be ordained. The lines form quickly and almost always remain at least 40 people long for several hours, King said.
The ministers hit the road early, usually by 7 a.m., so they can reach the next town and open for business by noon. Then they knock out ordinations without a break until about 8 p.m. There’s usually time for a brief dinner — often Tennessee’s “incredible barbecue,” King said — before the four crash in cheap hotel rooms.
The trip will probably cost between $5,000 and $10,000, according to Dylan Wall, the vice president of AMM’s board. The church typically takes in about $750,000 each year in donations and sales from its online store, King said.
As a matter of principle, the four ministers refuse to accept donations to fund the road trip. “People have offered, and that’s great, but this is not about that — this is about being here for people,” Yoshioka said.
King estimated that the four ministers ordain about 300 people a day.
They’re tired but happy. In fact, King said the road trip has been so rewarding that AMM is reconsidering its online-only model.
“We were in this digital space, and all of a sudden we are here, meeting with people, and this is totally changing the way we think about what we do — we’re getting inspired,” King said. “We want to take more road trips. You can expect more of this in the future.”
Whatever that future may bring — whatever happens with the Universal Life Church Monastery lawsuit and the Tennessee law — Kendra Roberts, 22, knows one thing: She will be able to officiate at her mother’s wedding in the fall.
Roberts, who lives with her mother and her mother’s fiance in Heiskell, Tenn., got ordained online through the Universal Life Church in college to perform weddings for friends. When she and her mother learned about the state law, they were devastated. Then they read online that AMM, which neither had known existed, was holding an ordaining event in Knoxville that day.
Roberts drove to Knoxville, waited in line and saved her mother’s ceremony. It is especially meaningful that she officiate, Roberts explained, because the family is still grieving her father’s death two years ago in a car crash.
“[My mom and her fiance] wanted someone to do it who they knew, that they trusted and that they would both be happy with ordaining their service,” Roberts said. “We’ve been through a lot as a family. They needed the familiarity of me.”