Assemblies of God SearchSite GuideStoreContact Us

Enrichment Journal - Enriching and Equipping Spirit-filled Ministers

Main image Goes Here
  • Back
  • Table of Contents for this issue.

 

Performing “Religious” Marriages

By Richard R. Hammar

Parishioners occasionally ask their pastor to perform a “religious” marriage ceremony without complying with the legal requirements for a valid marriage prescribed by state law. There are many reasons for doing so. Consider the following examples:

Whatever the reason, pastors need to understand there are several potential legal and tax consequences associated with a “religious” marriage that is not in compliance with state law. A recent case in Tennessee illustrates this point.

A couple had a “religious” marriage in their church, presided over by a church elder. However, the couple never obtained a marriage license. Instead, they testified that they obtained a “certificate” from their church documenting that they had been married. One spouse was injured in a traffic accident and her “husband” sued the other driver for “loss of consortium.” The court ruled that only a married spouse can maintain a loss of consortium claim based on the death or incapacity of the other spouse. It concluded:

“As far as the law of Tennessee is concerned, without a valid license, the plaintiffs do not have a valid marriage. The Tennessee Code section on marriage ‘licenses and permits’ states that, ‘before being joined in marriage, the parties shall present to the minister or officer a license under the hand of a county clerk in this state, 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.’ Multiple other code provisions reinforce this notion that obtaining a valid license from the county clerk is a necessary step toward a valid marriage, as it protects the State against recognizing marriages that are contrary to the public interest. … Plainly, in order to have a valid, recognized marriage under Tennessee law, there must be a marriage license. Here, there is no license, so there is no marriage that the state of Tennessee will recognize.”

The couple claimed that, even if they did not have a marriage license, they believed themselves to be married, they had a marriage ceremony, they obtained a “certificate” of marriage from their church, and they had cohabited for more than 5 years. The court was not impressed:

“The plaintiffs believe in the validity of their marriage, but they affirmatively do not recognize the authority of the state of Tennessee to sanction or regulate the validity of their marriage. Therefore, reasonably, the plaintiffs can be viewed as ‘believing in the validity of their marriage,’ but also ‘knowingly living together in an unmarried state.’ The couple’s decision not to obtain a license was a knowing choice; their deposition testimony showed that they had both been married and divorced before. … This plainly shows they are familiar with the formalities of marriage, including licensing.”

The court stressed that this is not a case in which the parties attempted to obtain a license and there was a technical glitch, such that, in fairness, the marriage should be recognized. Rather, here the plaintiffs made the conscious choice to forego a basic requirement of a valid marriage in Tennessee. That is, of course, their choice, but nothing in fairness and equity dictates that the court should now — when it suits the couple’s financial objectives to have a government-sanctioned marriage — recognize their marriage as valid for purposes of this case.

There are many other possible legal and tax consequences associated with a “religious” marriage that is not in compliance with state law, including those listed below. Pastors may be subject to criminal penalties (typically a misdemeanor involving a fine or short prison sentence) under state law for performing a marriage that does not comply with state law. It is imperative for pastors to understand the possible application of such penalties before performing a religious marriage.

Pastors should not consider performing “religious marriages” without carefully considering these possible ramifications. Legal counsel can assist pastors in making an informed decision.

RICHARD R. HAMMAR, LL.M, CPA, serves as legal counsel to the Assemblies of God, and is editor of the Church Law and Tax Report newsletter. He has written more than 50 books on church legal and tax issues, including the third edition of Pastor, Church and Law.

This article is reprinted with permission from Church Law & Tax Report © 2010 Christianity Today International.

Enrichment
International Editions

Bengali
Albanian
Bengali
Bengali
Croatian
Croatian
Czech
Czech
French
French
German
German
Hindi
Hindi
Hungarian
Hungarian
Malayalam
Malayalam
Hindi
Portuguese
Romanian
Romanian
Russian
Russian
Spanish
Spanish
Tamil
Tamil
Ukranian
Ukrainian
Donate to this project.

Order Paraclete CD

All 29 years of the out-of-print Paraclete magazine. Excellent source of Pentecostal themes and issues, theological articles on the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, and sermon and Bible study material. Fully searchable subject/author index.

Good News Filing System

Order Advance CD

Long out of print but fondly remembered, Advance magazine blessed thousands of A/G ministers. Now the entire Advance archives — 30 years of information and inspiration, helps, and history — is available on CD.

Visit our Spanish web site
Women in Ministry
Tools of the Trade
Women in Ministry
Enrichment on CD
AGTV