By the power invested in me (by the scriptwriters...)
May 24, 2014 6:28 AM   Subscribe

Brit who watches lots of American sitcoms here. It seems weddings in such programmes Friends, Big Bang Theory, Girls) are always performed by someone who 'bought a certificate online'. Does this really happen? I can't even imagine the amount of bureaucracy it would require here! Have anyone Mefites done it themselves?
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome to Law & Government (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: Yep.

However, that's not the part of the marriage that counts. The couple still completed a marriage license in front of a magistrate or a judge or some other public official -- they just followed that up with a ceremony in front of their friends and families that is totally non-binding and extra-legal.
posted by Etrigan at 6:34 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on the jurisdiction, it actually can be pretty much that simple. See the Universal Life Church.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 AM on May 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Oh, and check any of the marriage-equality threads on the Blue to find MeFites advertising their local marriage-ceremony-performing bonafides whenever same-sex marriage becomes legal in a new place.
posted by Etrigan at 6:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Look here my child.

The US is really, really light-handed with regard to religion. Click the link, fill out the form. You're a minister.
posted by General Tonic at 6:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yep, it's no big deal and people do it all the time. Some states (like California) have even dumped the facade of being some sort of clergy, and you just have to register as the person who will perform the ceremony ahead of time.
posted by brainmouse at 6:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Easy as pie

In the US, state authorities aren't encouraged to make decisions about who is "really" a minister under the law; as long as you get your marriage license from the state, most aren't really that interested in whether your minister is a "real" minister.

North Carolina has had a little legal wrangling over whether Universal Life Church ministers are "real" ministers for the purposes of weddings; Virginia lets you have anyone you want perform the ceremony as long as they fill out a form with the county 30 days in advance or something like that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:40 AM on May 24, 2014

Yep. went down to the local tax/court/ etc to pay the County Clerk ~$70, he gave us a fancy paper license, our 'minister' friend (From the Universal Life Church, I believe) asked the 'do you? do you?' then said "ok, done!' signed the form, and we mailed it back to the county clerk so they could file it. Done.
posted by Jacen at 6:43 AM on May 24, 2014

The couple still completed a marriage license in front of a magistrate or a judge or some other public official -- they just followed that up with a ceremony in front of their friends and families that is totally non-binding and extra-legal.

This is not quite accurate universally. In California, I applied for the license with the random worker in the county clerk's office, and received a ready-to-be-signed version. I took it to my ceremony, and after the ceremony was performed the officiant and several witnesses signed it to complete it, and we mailed it in. The second part was absolutely binding and legal, and the first part wasn't (the license expired if we didn't use it to get married in 30 days or something).
posted by brainmouse at 6:45 AM on May 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

In Massachusetts, anyone can get a one day designation to perform a wedding by filling out a form and a check for $25.00. I've seen a friend of mine perform two weddings, one in the voice of Homer Simpson. It was pretty sweet.
posted by bondcliff at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Absolutely. MrMoonPie did it with great success.

Amendment to a comment above...Most states do require commitment in front of witnesses and the licensed celebrant has to submit the proper forms in order for the marriage to be legal. Not just getting the license. Rules vary by state.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:51 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

This situation with on-line certificates and such is a bit more complicated and problematic than you might think. See, for example, this article from the New York Times:

"Great Wedding! But Was It Legal?"
In an era of six-figure weddings when couples obsess about the band playlist and hand towels for the restrooms, one question may get short shrift: Is the person performing the wedding legally able to do so?

Daniel Morales and Gwendolyn Baxter thought they knew. Their outdoor ceremony two summers ago in Farmington, Conn., was performed by a friend who had been ordained online by the Universal Life Church. Having heard of other couples who were married that way, they assumed it was legal.

But Connecticut is one of a half-dozen places that do not recognize marriages performed by someone who became a minister for the sole purpose of marrying people. Such a minister “doesn’t meet the requirements of the state statutes,” said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
See also:

"Reconsidering the Rev. Best Friend"
posted by alex1965 at 7:03 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Rules vary by state has listings; dunno about its accuracy.

Religious ceremonies conducted by a traditional minister are still quite common in the US. Sitcom weddings probably aren't representative.
posted by Snerd at 7:11 AM on May 24, 2014

Can you get married by publishing banns in lieu of a license in the UK? The reason I ask is I live in a jurisdiction (Ontario) that allows publication of banns in lieu of a marriage license so the church actually has a role in regulating marriage. I don't think that option is available in the US, so the role of the officiant is different.

(as an aside, announcing the banns in church in lieu of a license was how gay marriage was legalized here)
posted by TORunner at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2014

It certainly does happen! I and another Mefite were married by a third Mefite, whose power was granted by the Universal Life Church.
posted by dfan at 7:15 AM on May 24, 2014

Not me, but my self-described-pagan niece married an atheist guy in West Virginia, officiated by a friend who'd gotten the Universal Life Church certificate by mail just for the wedding. The officiant wrote her part, my niece & her guy wrote their parts, they all signed the license and all went well. (Although at the end, as we were all standing there in our Renaissance-style wedding outfits, it WAS kinda funny when one of the other guests yelled 'Mazel Tov!')
posted by easily confused at 7:35 AM on May 24, 2014

I've attended a wedding where two Mefites were joined in matrimony by another Mefite by the power vested in him by the Universal Life Church. But they'd also had an 'official' ceremony in a UK Register Office. The ULC ceremony wouldn't be recognised as a legally-binding marriage in the UK. The kicker to this is that if a ULC ceremony that's taken place in another country is a valid and legal form of marriage in that country, then it would be recognised in the UK.
posted by essexjan at 7:45 AM on May 24, 2014

Chiming in for the chorus here: yup.

My spouse and I were also married by a MeFite. She got a Universal Life Church certificate online. We got a marriage license at the courthouse (no ceremony of any kind there, just proving we were eligible) and my friend had a form she had to fill out and mail in after the ceremony.

She made us this awesome certificate, too.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:52 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bless you, my child. I am a Universal Life Church minister, and I've married 5 couples in California, including one of my sisters. And only two of "my" couples are divorced, so I guess I'm still beating the national average.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:53 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My now husband and I had the marriage license signed by a good friend of ours, who ponied up the $5 to become a minister in the Universal Light Church.

The issue was that my husband is Quaker, but I wasn't. And I'm Jewish, but at the time wasn't a member of a synagogue, even if the synagogue had been willing to do an interfaith marriage, which often they won't. And we didn't know any justices of the peace or judges...

Where I now live in Alaska,anyone can sign up with the state to be an officiant for a day. On the other hand, my recollection is that in Pennsylvania, to be counted as a minister for marrying purposes you have to have a congregation with x people in it
posted by leahwrenn at 7:59 AM on May 24, 2014

Yes, as others have said, this varies by state. Some states allow it and some don't. Even in states that don't allow it, there is in some cases a secular workaround - eg becoming a justice of the peace or a notary public - so that a chosen friend could get the right paperwork and then perform your wedding.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:59 AM on May 24, 2014

The weddings I have been to are usually done this way.
posted by aniola at 8:04 AM on May 24, 2014

Additionally to all this, in a few states a couple is allowed to officiate their own wedding—an outgrowth of the Quaker tradition.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:16 AM on May 24, 2014

In Colorado, where I was married (by a judge) in December 1993, there is no officiant required at all. In August of that year it became legal for a couple to solemnize their own marriage after obtaining a marriage license, but then they have to return the paperwork to the county clerk.
posted by caryatid at 8:19 AM on May 24, 2014

When same-sex marriage became available in Minnesota, the mayor of Minneapolis was up at midnight marrying people. You might think that being mayor empowers you to marry people, but that wasn't the case. It just so happened the mayor had been previously ordained by the Universal Life Church to marry some friends of his.

In San Francisco you can be married by a volunteer at City Hall. (You can get married by a judge, too. I'm not sure if you have to ask for a judge or if they're sometimes hanging around.)
posted by hoyland at 9:28 AM on May 24, 2014

I have a ULC ordination and I have married people!
posted by rmd1023 at 9:56 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my home state (Montana), anybody at all can officiate a wedding. All they care about is they get a marriage license that has been signed and witnessed.
posted by jcreigh at 10:04 AM on May 24, 2014

Thanks everyone! It all sounds really lovely and makes me a bit sad about state interference in personal relationships here. Hey ho!
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 10:50 AM on May 24, 2014

Additionally to all this, in a few states a couple is allowed to officiate their own wedding—an outgrowth of the Quaker tradition.

Yep, my wife and I had a self-uniting marriage license. Just the two of us signing the license--no divine intervention required!
posted by The Michael The at 11:03 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another yes. In my state, ANYONE can officiate a marriage, you just apply for a one-day permit from the state government. Our best friend from college married us.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:10 AM on May 24, 2014

A good rule of thumb for the US is that almost *everything* can very by state.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:40 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

A bit of specific information from one random state:

In my state of Idaho, to get married, you go down to the courthouse and get a marriage license. That is not a marriage, but it is permission to marry. It's pretty straightforward, you just have to show ID and show that you're legally able to marry. Idaho law also required that they give us a pamphlet on AIDS.

At that point, you're not married, but you need to have someone complete your marriage and sign off on your marriage license. You file that with the county, and you're married. My marriage license (which I still have a copy of) says on it:

"KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THIS CERTIFICATE: That any regularly ordained minister of the Gospel, authorized by the [...] Christians, Hebrews, or religious body of which said minister is a member, or any judge [...], or any competent officer to whom this may come, [...] is hereby authorized and empowered to solemnize the rites of Matrimony between [...]"

You can read the Idaho marriage law here, it's pretty straightforward:

Idaho Statutes

In particular, section 308 says that as long as at least one of the parties believed that the person had the ability to solemnize the marriage, the marriage is valid.
posted by Hatashran at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2014

It's definitely weird but to echo everyone else, it's totally done.

For more context, I think it has to do with the "separation of church and state" and "freedom of religion" that are so important in the USA. I think everyone knows that the ULC is kinda bullshit and pretty much taking advantage of the law, but nobody would ever stop them because they're a "church" and allowed to conduct themselves however they want.
posted by radioamy at 1:14 PM on May 24, 2014

In my experience this is a thing you can do, but it's not at all typical. I've been to possibly one wedding ever that did this, even among a relatively bohemian and unconventional social circle. I think it happens so often on TV for two reasons:

1. It's kind of a funny novelty that you even can do this. The average whitebread American would never get married this way. So great for a sitcom always looking for wacky hijinks for their characters.

2. It enables the writers of the show to use their characters economically. Since every principle cast member in a show has to appear in every episode, by having a principal character officiate, you give that character a role within the wedding episode and don't have to flounder around for something for them to do.
posted by Sara C. at 1:24 PM on May 24, 2014

I know lots of Universal Life 'ministers' who have performed weddings, but I also know it's definitely not universally accepted. I got destination wedding-ish married in New Orleans and WOW were they picky. Our out of state Presbyterian minister friend had to send in notarized paperwork weeks in advance to prove she was really and truly ordained by a church, no funny business, no sir.

Little did the state of Louisiana know that in addition to being a minister she was also a lesbian. Mwahahahaaa!
posted by mostlymartha at 2:47 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience this is a thing you can do, but it's not at all typical. I've been to possibly one wedding ever that did this, even among a relatively bohemian and unconventional social circle.

I think it depends heavily on your social circle and also where you live. I can think of four couples I know at some stage of planning a wedding and all are planning on using ministers of, er, dubious qualification because that's the easiest and cheapest way to have a secular officiant here if you don't want to get married at the courthouse (and don't happen to know a court administrator or judge).
posted by hoyland at 5:44 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also have a ULC certificate and each of the three couples I have married are still together. W00t w00t! And yes, each couple brought the pre-fab marriage certificate to the wedding, which we all signed afterward.
posted by Lynsey at 9:42 PM on May 24, 2014

I officiated a wedding as a Dudeist priest. All the paperwork was filed at the courthouse and the city didn't even ask what church ordained me.
The Church of the Dude
posted by PSB at 7:14 AM on May 25, 2014

In the UK (possibly just england) you have to have the legal paperwork done in a building which is registered for weddings (which is just a monster con ultimately but I digress) by someone who is legally able to do so.

What we did (and what I gather is quite common) was have a legal wedding and then have the big old ceremony the day after with a Humanist officiant. (Although neither of us are humanists, he was a friend and had done them before and was good at cutting all the religion out of the ceremony). One of the main reasons was that we wanted the wedding outside and it is not possible to have a legal wedding outside in England.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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