Is Online Ordination Sufficient for Pagan Officiants?
Is an online ordination worth the paper it is written on?
That seems to be the question Tennessee’s new law is taking aim at.
The law was supposed to take effect on July 1st and aimed at removing those ordained online from the pool of officials authorized to solemnize marriages. While the law has been challenged and blocked it has brought to light questions regarding the way we understand marriage solemnization and clergy ordination as a whole (especially in the Pagan community).
The Universal Life Church
My first ordination was through Universal Life Church in Modesto, CA. In fact, many Pagans would be forced to say the same. ULC has been offering online ordinations to would be officiants all around the world since Kirby Hensley started services from his garage in 1962. Originally an attempt at a tax dodge, the ULC has battled legal challenges, branch offs, copycats, and the passing of its own founder, to be the most recognized name in instant ordination.
And while now the options for online ordination include many more than just the Universal Life Church/es (American Marriage Ministries, Church of the Dude, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and more), ULC was certainly the church to start the online ordination trend.
The ability to have weddings officiated by friends and loved ones has made this route increasingly interesting to the growing number of non-religious, SBNR, GSRM/LGBTQ+, and interfaith couples, with 43% of couples in 2016 choosing this option. So much so that it has become a stable of our popular culture, with celebrities getting ordained online to officiate for friends and fans, and with the online ordination becoming a staple of popular culture as shown in shows like The Big Bang Theory.
I have been honored to help guide several friends hoping to perform a wedding for a loved one who asked them to. They are often very honored to have been asked and always want to do their best to make the couple’s day the best it can be.
Pagans Ordained Online
And for Pagans this has been incredibly important. As a group of decentralized loosely networked minority religions, Pagan groves and covens often lack the resources to maintain 501(c)(3) status in their state. And with 3 out of 4 Pagans practicing as solitaries, a Pagan couple may have no coven to turn to for ritual officiating at all (for weddings, funerals, blessings, or anything) so rely upon Pagan or secular friends and family.
This ability to self ordain and benefit from the larger backing of ULC in regards to legal challenges has been a blessing for Pagans, and has helped fuel the “all pagans are priests” mentality of mainstream practitioners. Pagans have chosen to train for their priesthoods through whatever method they prefer (coven, individual, online) and benefit from the ULC’s open ordination policy to ensure they are legally recognized as clergy (visit this post for more thoughts on casual versus dedicated clergy).
And in many ways this is a requirement of the separation of church and state. The democratization of ordination means that states which require either a state official or an ordained religious official to solemnize marriage aren’t excluding the religious officials of smaller minority religions who cannot maintain sufficient numbers and status to offer ordination themselves (such as the small covens and groves that are the backbone of modern Pagan communities).
The Challenges Against Internet Ministers
But the charges levied by Tennassee’s law against online ordination are not without merit, and Tennassee certainly isn’t the first place to doubt the usefulness of online ordination. Tennassee’s Attorney General questioned the ULC back in 2015 and Virginia’s AG did the same back in 2010. In Nevada, marriage officiants must register with the state (regardless of ordination status). New York courts have decided both for and against the validity of online ordination. And Joanna Grossman (professor at SMU Dedman School of Law) wrote an article in 2011 detailing the many times that ULC ordination did not hold up in family court and that a couple’s marriage was annulled during arguments over divorce, custody, finances, etc (example).
In each case, while no one has challenged ordination per say, the challenges have been that those ordinations did not meet the state’s requirements to officiate/solemnize marriage. The accusation is that a minister is usually authorized to officiate weddings because it is assumed that this meets the legal requirements for marriage (verification that the couple is not related, attesting that the couple did actually voice their desire to be married, etc etc) is done by a “person of responsibility and integrity and by one possessed of some educational qualifications” (quoted from Grossman’s article).
Then Who Counts, and Why?
The language of most of these laws allowing for clergy to officiate explicitly assumes clergypersons that are established, trained, and engags in regular spiritual leadership. As examples:
- Tennessee expects “ordination or designation by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act” and based on those additional requirements judged that “persons ordained by the Universal Life Church are not qualified [to] solemnize a marriage.”
- The Virginia Supreme Court has rules that Virginia “can require that the person who performs a marriage ceremony be certified or licensed” and are not valid “unless someone who is authorized to perform the ceremony signs them.” The AG’s opinion is that the Tennessee General Assembly “intended to quality only those citizens within the selective and exclusive class of ‘ministers’” and clarifies that they specifically did not “intended to qualify a minister of a religious organization ‘whose title and status could be so casually and cavalierly acquired.’ lnstead, ‘[the minister] is the head of a religious congregation, society or order … set apart as the leader … the person elected or selected in accordance with the ritual, bylaws or discipline of the order.’”
- New York’s Domestic Relations Code uses the definition for clergy from its Religious Corporations Law: “a duly authorized pastor, rector, priest, rabbi, and a person having authority from, or in accordance with, the rules and regulations of the governing ecclesiastical body of the denomination or order, if any, to which the church belongs, or otherwise from the church or synagogue to preside over and direct the spiritual affairs of the church or synagogue.”
- Even in California, while there seems to be no law defining what counts as a Priest or Minister, a later section in the same definitions of who can officiate defines the ability for the county to “license officials of a nonprofit religious institution” (in addition to those that fall under the minister/priest provision) but requires that those persons “shall possess the degree of doctor of philosophy and must perform religious services or rites for the institution on a regular basis” and any marriages performed by those people “shall be performed without fee to the Parties.” While this doesn’t apparently affect anyone who is a “Priest or Minister” through their faith organization (both in-state and out-of-state) it is telling of the expectations of California for the training and duties assumed to be held by clergymembers and the responsibility of clergy to provide services without charge.
The arguments here seem to be that clergymembers are not authorized due solely to their religious affiliation or beliefs, but instead because they are responsible and educated leaders within their community who can be trusted when they attest to the facts of the marriage.
Tennassee’s argument (echoed by legal scholars) is that they are protecting couples from having their marriage’s validity challenged in the future.
The argument of proponents of online ordination is that requiring a non-online component privileges larger religions and hurts minority religious groups.
The argument of opponents to clergy officiants at all is that marriage as a contract should be separated from the church and given solely into the hands of government offices (who could, presumably, offer a registration for officiant status separate from any religious affiliation).
And lastly, the arguments from many state level courts and Attorneys General is that clergymembers are included due to their roles as community leaders and that’s why clergy without a community should not be considered to fit the bill.
Regardless, this argument will stay heated for some time, as the very inclusion (or exclusion) of a religious component changes the concern from one purely of community to one of the free exercise of religion.
While this warrants a broader conversation about Pagan ordination in general, the current question is regarding marriage officiating as it is seen by the laws of the states, so I’ll keep this writeup focused on that and that alone.
So is an online ordination worth the paper it is written on?
That remains to be seen.
Can Universal Life Church Ministers Officiate at Weddings? In Some States, the Answer Is No by Joanna Grossman
Friends Don’t Let (Online-Ordained) Friends Officiate at Their Weddings by Dave Roos
Reconsidering the Rev. Best Friend by Vincent M. Mallozzi