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Tennessee officials dodge claims from internet-ordained ministers

Dismissing claims against top Tennessee state officials, the Sixth Circuit ruled a group of internet-ordained minsters can only bring their case against local officials who enforce rules that prohibit them from solemnizing weddings.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A nondenominational church based in Seattle and several of its members cannot fight Tennessee's ban on internet-ordained ministers solemnizing marriages via claims against state officials, according to a Friday ruling from a Sixth Circuit panel.

Universal Life Church Monastery and several of its ministers filed a federal lawsuit against various state and local officials in 2019, claiming a Tennessee law discriminated against its faith by refusing to allow internet-ordained ministers to solemnize marriages.

The suit came in response to several measures passed by the Tennessee Legislature in 2019, including one that criminally sanctioned a minister who filled out a marriage license knowing he or she lacked the requisite authority to certify the marriage. The charge is a Class E felony punishable by a $3,000 fine and up to six years in prison.

A federal judge denied nearly all of the defendants' motions to dismiss and ruled the threat of criminal enforcement against the ministers gave the church standing to pursue constitutional claims.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III and various county district attorneys general filed an interlocutory appeal to the Sixth Circuit, and the case was argued before a three-judge panel in December 2021.

U.S. Circuit Judge John Bush, an appointee of Donald Trump, wrote Friday's opinion and sifted through the arguments pertaining to each of the defendants.

He agreed with the lower court's dismissal of claims against Governor Bill Lee, and ruled the church's sparse arguments regarding the governor's connection to enforcement of the laws deprived it of standing.

While Bush admitted the claims against Slatery posed a "more difficult question," he ultimately ruled in the attorney general's favor, given that his office lacks the ability to initiate criminal proceedings.

The bulk of the court's opinion was devoted to local officials, including several county DAs, and there the church found better footing with its arguments.

Because one of the church's ministers, Gabriel Biser, resides in Hamilton County and is under threat of enforcement if he solemnizes a marriage, claims against Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston may proceed, according to the three-judge panel.

Bush noted Biser has performed marriages in Hamilton County in the past and even canceled one scheduled wedding after being informed of the new laws, and so the threat of enforcement is credible.

"Indeed," he wrote, "both before this suit was filed and in the district court below, defendants took no meaningful steps -- like submitting an affidavit forswearing prosecution -- to mitigate plaintiffs' fears. Nor could counsel for the state defendants provide such assurances when given a final opportunity at oral argument."

Universal Life Church may also pursue an injunction against Pinkston via associational standing, the Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled.

For nearly identical reasons, Bush also determined the church and minister Erin Patterson have standing to pursue claims against Rutherford County District Attorney General Jennings Jones.

The church's claims against three of the four county clerks named in the suit did not fare as well, however, as the clerks' relative lack of enforcement power deprived Universal Life Monastery of standing.

"Unlike the district attorneys general -- imbued with both the discretion and the duty to prosecute violations -- the clerks have no discretion and no authority under state law to deny a couple a marriage license just because a ULC minister solemnized the proceeding," Bush said.

Putnam County Clerk Wayne Nabors was the only clerk left standing by the end of the opinion, primarily because he allegedly refused to provide a license to a couple that told his office they planned to use one of the monastery's ministers.

Nabors refuted the allegations, but because the appeal came before the panel at the motion-to-dismiss stage, Bush accepted the claims as true and allowed the case to proceed.

All of the local officials argued they were entitled to sovereign immunity as actors of the state, but the panel disagreed and applied the exception found in Ex parte Young, a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows suits against state actors if their actions violate the U.S. Constitution.

Attorney Ambika Kumar of Davis, Wright, and Tremaine, who argued the case in December on behalf of the plaintiffs, said she was pleased with court's decision.

"We are grateful for the court’s recognition that Universal Life Church and its ministers are entitled to have their claims against Tennessee’s online-ordination statute heard," she said. "The state can no longer—as it has done for nearly three years—delay a court’s review of this patently unconstitutional law.  We look forward to vindicating our clients’ rights to solemnize marriages in Tennessee, a right that other ministers already have."

Putnam County Attorney Jeffrey Jones, who represented Nabors at December's arguments, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The panel also included Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, an appointee of George W. Bush, and U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Stranch, a Barack Obama appointee.

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