It's kind of like that old saying: When Tennessee lawmakers close a door, the internet opens a window.
This year, lawmakers here valiantly slew the wicked wishes of those evil, eager couples hoping to get married by someone not of the cloth or of the government. Since 1997, even two Tennessee Attorneys General have opined against this dark, all-encompassing oppression choking the necks of every soul across the Volunteer State. But this year — redemption! Thanks to 26 separate, holy actions by the House and 10 by the Senate, Public Chapter 415 becomes the law of the land on July 1st. The hills shall rejoice and give praise!
Getting "internet married" is a digital, DIY culture hack that allows couples to get hitched by anyone they choose. Friends, relatives, bosses, book club leaders, crosswalk guards, rodeo clowns — anyone — can marry any two people in Tennessee — for the rest of this month at least.
All they need is an internet connection and an email address. Point a browser over to the digital temple of the Universal Life Church. Enter your name (it has to be a real one). Enter your email address, and Bang! There's your official ordination on an official-looking certificate you could print off and hang on the wall.
Couples get "mail-order ministers," who are usually friends or family, to give their personal, private ceremony a personal, private touch. Such a solemn pact could be sealed by a friendly face, not some stranger who'd say Satan-knows-what during your special day. But Tennessee Republicans — who think the government should stay out of our personal business — think the government they lead should get all up in this personal business in a great, big way.
So, two white, cis-gender, Christian, white-haired, East-Tennessee Republicans sponsored a bill that wades right out into the middle of the private lives of every Tennessean. It passed with easy majorities of both legislative bodies, which are dominated by those small-government Republicans.
Here's your new law, Tennesseans:
"Under present law, in order to solemnize the rite of matrimony, a minister, preacher, pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader must be ordained or otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple, or other religious group or organization; and such customs must provide for such ordination or designation by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act," reads the bill summary.
So, you can't be ordained by the click of a mouse anymore. You must go through an established religious organization. This, in a country that stands upon a document that proudly proclaims a separation of church and state and freedom from religion. It's all right there alongside the right to bear arms. Isn't it, Republicans?
But these Sky-Daddy-Fearing lawmakers gave some reprieve to all of those helpless, sinful internet-marrieds. If you got internet married (before July 1st) by your sweet old grandma (because she was going to die soon and she always wanted to see her sweet little one get married one day), you can stay married. Oh, such benevolence.
In 1997, then-state-Attorney General John Walkup said internet ministers couldn't seal the deal in Tennessee. But are internet-marrieds still married? Eh, depends on who's asking but the "presumption in favor of marriage is very strong."
In 2015, Attorney General Herbert Slattery put a finer point on online ordination. He said, officiants (outside of government leaders) must belong to religious groups and be "ordained by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act." So, not only did you have to be in the God Club, Jesus also had to pull your name out of the Goblet of Fire, or whatever.
So, our faithful defenders of Democracy For Some created a new, unbreakable law on internet hitching this year. But this week, a window on all of this was slated to open here in Memphis.
The American Marriage Ministries was to set up shop at Shelby Farms on Monday to ordain — in person — anyone who wanted to marry anyone. It's enough, the group says, to stand against Tennessee's new law.
The AMM church's doctrine is broad enough to cover Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, or even Pagans, it says. Weird. Isn't that what the American Constitution was created to cover?
Toby Sells is a Flyer associate editor.