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Bill seeks to regulate some online ministers who officiate at weddings

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, speaks to state

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, speaks to state legislators during a public hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace Wednesday, Feb. 13, in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The ads promise to make you an ordained minister online with the authority to officiate at weddings of friends or relatives, but the hot millennial twist on holy matrimony has a potential dark side, legislators said.

A bill with powerful sponsors in the state Assembly and Senate would require the New York secretary of state to approve a “one-day marriage officiant” to preside over weddings through what one company calls “instant ordination” because the legality of some  ordinations by the online companies is murky.

“Things come up like adoption and divorce, and whether you own a condo together,” said Assemb. Sandra Galef (D-Ossining), the bill's sponsor. “This is just over the top. At the end of the day, there have been questions about whether someone is legally married.”

Lewis King, executive director of American Marriage Ministries based in Seattle, said online churches provide a low-cost wedding option for low-income and rural couples, and others.

“The world is changing,” King said. “For many people who don’t go to church, moments like weddings … are the ultimate expression of their spirituality. That is what a wedding is.”

State law says weddings can be presided over by “a clergyman or minister of any religion” as well as governors, mayors, judges and other government officials and Native American tribal leaders.

Robert Raines, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson Law School, said the legislation requiring state approval of one-time officiants doesn’t say how difficult the registration process would be.

“How onerous will it be? Is it a $10 fee or a $100 fee?” he asked. “The record-keeping aspect is really important … at least then you know the state will recognize them.”

Raines also said prohibiting marriages is legally problematic: “There are great difficulties with outlawing something that is going on all over the place. We had Prohibition, and that didn’t work so well.”


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