By the Power Vested in Me by God Or the Internet: The Fight Over Online Ordinations

With lay officiants on the rise, Tennessee’s ban spurs religious freedom challenge.

After a religious freedom lawsuit, a federal judge this week blocked Tennessee’s new ban on online ordination for wedding officiants, citing “serious constitutional issues.”

The Universal Life Church Monastery—a top destination for giving friends and family credentials to perform ceremonies—had sued the Volunteer State over the policy, which it said “grants a preference to certain religions” and “burdens its members’ free exercise of religion.”

The law was set to go into effect July 1, but federal judge Waverly Crenshaw decided on Wednesday to allow weddings conducted by online-ordained celebrants to resume until a trial later this year. Officials argued the policy was designed to ensure officiants were responsible enough to perform their duties on behalf of the state.

Unlike most denominations, churches, and religious organizations, nonprofits like the Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries exist primarily to ordain the growing number of friends and family members tapped to officiate weddings. Recent surveys show between a quarter and half of US ceremonies are now performed by loved ones rather than traditional ministers.

While Tennessee lawmakers see pastors and religious clergy as beyond the scope of the ban—since they already meet the legal standard of “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act” for ordination—the law could become an issue if churches begin to offer “online ordination as the culmination of online theological training,” according to Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“For now, if the law is upheld, most ordaining organizations …

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