Tennessee Marriage Law For Ministers

We recently received an inquiry from an out-of-state (non-resident) minister who was concerned about performing a marriage ceremony in Tennessee.

His concern was not only about not being a resident of the state, but whether the local court clerk — who would be issuing the marriage license to the bridal couple — would accept and recognize the validity of his ministerial credential.

The Tennessee attorney general has issued several opinions in the past about whether ministers or spiritual leaders of various religions (including imams, rabbis and other clerics and teachers) were authorized to perform marriage ceremonies in the state. Also addressed by the attorney general was his opinion regarding whether or not instant online ordination through the Universal Life Church or other religious organizations met the state’s standard for being performed as “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”

(Note that the attorney general issued opinions on the state’s law — these are his interpretations only and have no legal effect, although they are carefully and thoughtfully written, and are excellent guides for all concerned.)

Our correspondent received this reply from the Deputy Clerk of the Sumner County Clerk’s Office in Gallatin, which gets straight to the bottom line:

Pursuant to the Tennessee Attorney General, the County Clerk does not have the authority to examine the qualifications of persons who perform marriage ceremonies.

The first thing we will point out is that we do not provide instant online ordination as others do.

We meet and exceed all of Tennessee’s statutes and legal requirements — each ordination request is reviewed and vetted by our staff, and must be approved by a member of our board in compliance with Tennessee’s directive for the process to be “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act.” We have been legally and lawfully ordaining ceremonial ministers in Tennessee for decades, without a single challenge to our authority to do so, or to the authority of those in our service.

In addition, as noted by the Sumner County Clerk’s Office, no County Clerk or other official anywhere in Tennessee has the authority to examine or rule on the qualifications of persons who perform marriage ceremonies; however, any legal authority (including judges, district attorneys and certain state-appointed officials) can request you to present your active credentials, as can the bridal couple and their legal representatives.

Keep in mind that most of the challenges to the legal authority of a marriage officiant from any church or religious organization is not because of the officiant’s legal status — it’s generally because one or both of the parties to the marriage are looking for a way to annul their union. In a divorce, one party may be looking for an advantage (financially or otherwise) over the other. If the other can get the marriage annulled because of a technicality, such as the legal status of the officiant, or perhaps because a certain box wasn’t checked off on the marriage license application, then the financial or custodial advantage can be wiped out as well.

The bottom line is that if the couple is looking to dissolve their marriage, then they’ll use any method at their disposal. If they are happily married, then no legal challenge will be made to their union — the state isn’t going to come along and say that Bob Smith wasn’t legally ordained, so the marriage is null and void.

Keep in mind also that Title 36 of the Tennessee Code includes several statutes that state, in essence, that if the parties to the marriage believe that they are legally married, then such marriage is valid and is declared to be in full compliance with the laws of Tennessee.

Ready to become ordained to perform ceremonies in Tennessee? Please click here.

On a related subject, we discuss whether or not ordained ministers are permitted to perform premarital counseling in Tennessee. Why is this subject important? Read more…