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Chris Feb. 5, 2016

Recent court decisions on the subject of marriage, culminating in Obergefell v. Hodges, have centered on who could get married. An offshoot of that concerned the issuance of marriage licenses by certain individuals. Few cases have ever addressed who could, or importantly could not, perform marriage ceremonies. States set their own laws and regulations regarding who could officiate a ceremony. Nearly–if not all-states empower members of the clergy (priests, ministers, rabbis, etc.), judges and justices of the peace to perform marriages. A recent trend is online ordination in which individuals become ordained ministers in a particular denomination by signing up and ordering certificates online. They then perform marriages for friends and family. Some are questioning the validity of marriages performed by such ministers.

I’ve encountered this question twice. A few years ago two of my friends said before their wedding that Connecticut doesn’t recognize online-only ministers–which they had hoped to use–so they made to make a change. They wound up using a minister that was a friend of the family and had a very nice and legal wedding. A few weeks ago it came up again at a party when friends of friends were talking about it and the newly ordained minister pulled out his minister card. I initially recalled my friends’ story and offered a word of caution. Upon returning home I turned to a higher authority for guidance–the Connecticut General Statutes.

Conn. Gen. Stat. 46b-22 provides in relevant part

Sec. 46b-22. (Formerly Sec. 46-3). Who may join persons in marriage…(3) all ordained or licensed members of the clergy, belonging to this state or any other state, as long as they continue in the work of the ministry. All marriages solemnized according to the forms and usages of any religious denomination in this state, including marriages witnessed by a duly constituted Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, are valid. All marriages attempted to be celebrated by any other person are void.

Online ordination is not specifically excluded. The key part is that ministers must continue to work in the ministry, presumably after performing the marriage. What is problematic is an ordination just to perform a marriage. That person wouldn’t really be continuing in the ministry. Sec. 46b-23 further provides that it is a misdemeanor criminal offense for someone to join persons in marriage “knowing that [he or she] is not authorized to do so.”

So what should you do if you are getting married by or have already been married by an online minister, or are an online minister yourself? I think to be safe the minister should expand his or her ministry beyond just a marriage or two. Administer some other sacraments. Who ever said that you can only do marriages? Offer a funeral package. Communion? You can serve whatever you want. If you were married by an online minister, ask for some baptisms for when you have kids. Add some holidays. You can never have too many of those.

Even if the minister doesn’t continue in his or her ministry, that doesn’t mean the marriage is automatically invalid. Assuming the marriage license is signed and returned, the marriage itself would have to be challenged in a later proceeding (often a divorce or probate matter). State court decisions have consistently upheld marriages wherein the parties were eligible to marry, intended to marry and believed the marriage to be valid. With that said, the online ordination issue has not yet been decided by any of our courts.

My fiancee’ Krystle and I are being married by a Justice of the Peace. I thought about having a Superior Court judge perform the ceremony but Krystle is afraid I would ask for a continuance.