Tennessee House passes bill allowing legislators to perform marriage ceremonies

The Tennessee State Capitol is shown in Nashville.
photo In this Jan. 28, 2015, file photo, state Rep. Ron Travis asks Gov. Bill Haslam a question about his Insure Tennessee plan which could expand Medicare to thousands of people in the state of Tennessee. Gov. Haslam spoke while visiting the Cherokee Health Systems office in downtown Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - A successful marriage bill evidently requires a good amendment to pass when it comes to the Tennessee House.

That was certainly the case Thursday for Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, who just last week saw his bill to allow members of the General Assembly to solemnize marriages founder amid questions and concerns voiced by colleagues.

A week later and a new amendment crafted by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, helped the bill pick up steam. Under the amendment, current and former legislators would have to opt into the would-be law's provisions in order to perform the ceremonies.

To do so, a legislator would have to file notice of his or her intention to solemnize the rite of matrimony with the Office of Vital Records.

After Travis explained the amendment and it was adopted, House Bill 213 flew through on a 70-16 vote with no debate.

The bill also says "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" in the future.

In addition to current and former legislators, the bill adds to the already lengthy list of existing officials authorized to preside over marriages, including Tennessee's nearly 1,700 city or town council members, as well as police chaplains "duly appointed" by state or local law enforcement leaders.

Last week when the bill was in trouble, Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, jumped in to point out that the measure's aim to bar people getting online ordinations to perform marriage ceremonies was intended to address what he called a "very critical legal problem."

photo State Rep. Mike Carter speaks during a 2016 education forum at the Volkswagen Conference Center.

"We have right now in Tennessee a situation where people are going online and getting an online ordination in order to marry friends and family members," Curcio said. "Right now we don't know under the eyes of the law whether those are legal marriages. So we desperately need clarification."

Under the bill, that "clarification" would ban people receiving online ordinations from solemnizing a marriage. The bill also declares that any marriage entered into prior to July 1 would not be affected.

The bill retains current law that says a minister, preacher, pastor, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader who must be ordained or "otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple or other religious group or organization" is authorized to perform the ceremony.

And it doesn't affect the huge list of current and former government officials who can preside over marriages. That includes the governor, the current and former speakers of the state House and Senate, current and retired judges, current and former county and city mayors, the county clerks who issue marriage licenses and county commissioners in the state's 95 counties.

Last week, a number of legislators raised concerns about being included. Some were worried about getting deluged with requests.

But Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, a social conservative, noted she saw marriage as a commitment as well as a "covenant and that I do support those who bring a man and a woman together in holy matrimony."

"My question to you is do I have any protections if someone would ask me will you marry us and I say no?" Weaver asked Travis last week. "What are the legal clarity protections to me when I say no? Are there any legal protections that are afforded to me?"

Travis sought to assure Weaver the bill was permissive and it was up to her whether to perform a marriage ceremony or not.

Evidently dissatisfied, Weaver replied that, "I guess what I'm rising to speak to is the religious liberties that I would like to be [permitted] to say no. So because of the ambiguity in this piece of legislation, I would not be able to support this bill."

At that point, Travis realized there were problems and delayed the bill until Thursday to resolve concerns.

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, is carrying the companion bill, Senate Bill 1377, in the upper chamber. It has been set for the final meeting this year of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.