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Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS)

Original Author: Bingham, Pamela
Date of Material: 04/21/1998

Laws and regulations--State

Solemnization of Marriages in Tennessee

Reviewed Date: 07/19/2021
MTAS was asked whether there is a state licensing requirement for designated persons to perform/solemnize a marriage in Tennessee.

April 21, 1998

You requested an opinion on whether there is a state licensing requirement for designated persons to perform/solemnize a marriage in Tennessee. As we discussed, there is no such state licensing requirement; nor is there a state regulatory board that is charged with administration of licensure of such persons. I have had an opportunity to research the Tennessee statutes and other relevant resources concerning the solemnization of marriages in Tennessee and have found the following information.

The Tennessee Legislature has authorized numerous persons to conduct ceremonies to solemnize marriages. T.C.A. § 36-3-301(a) conveys such authority upon:
All regular ministers, preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis and other spiritual leaders of every religious belief, more than eighteen (18) years of age, having the care of souls, and all members of the county legislative bodies, county mayors, judges, chancellors, former chancellors and former judges of this state, former county executives or county mayors of this state, former members of quarterly county courts or county commissions, the governor, the speaker of the senate and former speakers of the senate, the speaker of the house of representatives and former speakers of the house of representatives, members and former members of the general assembly who have filed notice pursuant to subsection (l), law enforcement chaplains duly appointed by the heads of authorized state and local law enforcement agencies, members of the legislative body of any municipality in this state, the county clerk of each county, former county clerks of this state who occupied the office of county clerk on or after July 1, 2014, notaries public, and the mayor of any municipality in this state may solemnize the rite of matrimony. For the purposes of this section, the several judges of the United States courts, including United States magistrates, United States bankruptcy judges, and federal administrative law judges, who are citizens of Tennessee are deemed to be judges of this state. The amendments to this section by Acts 1987, ch. 336, which applied provisions of this section to certain former judges, do not apply to any judge who has been convicted of a felony or who has been removed from office.

Furthermore, in Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 87-151 (September 17, 1987), the Attorney General opined that a person ordained in conformity with customs of any denomination and authorized to perform religious functions is a "regular minister of the gospel of every denomination" and can solemnize a marriage even if that individual's regular residence is outside State of Tennessee; and, the county clerk has no authority to require proof that officiant is minister. T.C.A. § 36-3-301. But see Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. U97-041 [a person ordained by the Universal Life Church, Inc., which apparently has ordained anyone who filled out a mail order application, without a background check, verification or obtaining of any information, did not appear to meet the criteria of T.C.A. § 36-3-301(a) in order to be qualified to solemnize marriages.] In summary, under state statute, the legislature has designated the persons who may solemnize marriages. This list includes includes, but is not limited to, ministers, rabbis, members of county legislative bodies, county executives, judges, chancellors, former chancellors, former judges, former county executives, the governor, the speaker of the senate, former speakers of the senate, the speaker of the house of representatives, former speakers of the house of representatives, county clerks and mayors of any municipality in the state. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-3-301(a).

In construing a statute, courts are required to give words in the statute their natural and ordinary meaning. Mercy v. Olsen, 672 S.W.2d 1967 (Tenn.1984). Therefore, in determining what constitutes a "regular minister," the words are to be given their natural and ordinary meaning.

A "minister" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "a person authorized to perform religious functions in a church." A "minister" is also defined in Words and Phrases as a person who is ordained in conformity with the customs of any organized denomination. Town of Londonderry v. Town of Chester, 2 N.H. 268, 9 Am.Dec. 61. Thus it would appear that the minister of the First Christian Church in your city falls within these definitions.

It should be noted that no matter which authorized person performs the ceremony, Tennessee marriage laws require the parties to obtain a marriage license from the appropriate county clerk as a condition precedent to the solemnization of a valid marriage. In accordance with T.C.A. § 36-3-103(a):

Before being joined in marriage, the parties shall present to the minister or officer a license under the hand of a county clerk in the state of Tennessee, directed to such minister or officer, authorizing the solemnization of a marriage between the parties. Such license shall be valid for thirty (30) days from its issuance by the clerk.

In addition, the Legislature has expressly set forth the requirements for the issuance of a marriage license. Such requirements have been made a condition precedent to the issuance of the license. See T.C.A. § 36-3-104. Thus, it is clear that Tennessee law requires the parties desiring to be married to obtain a marriage license before a marriage ceremony may be properly solemnized. The general rule is that a ceremony performed in Tennessee without a marriage license will not result in a valid marriage. Therefore, a minister or officer performing a marriage ceremony should not proceed until and unless the parties produce a marriage license for his or her signature.

Very truly yours,

Pamela M.M. Bingham
Legal Consultant