West Virginia, Marriage, and the #UMC

I’m in a mood to experiment a little.

You can find Part II here.

West Virginia State Capitol
West Virginia State Capitol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Great State of West Virginia, there are some requirements in order to perform a wedding ceremony. Besides age, one must be:

  • duly authorized to perform marriages by his or her church, synagogue, spiritual assembly or religious organization; and
  • in regular communion with that group of which he or she is a member.

West Virginia is one of the states where it is legal for two consenting adults of the same gender to marry. Yet, the allowance for performance thereof is dependent upon the church or other religious institution.

In simple English, you have to be authorized to perform marriages by your church or religion institution in order to be authorized by the State of West Virginia and that authorization seems to carry over only to the marriages authorized .

This gets into a hairy situation when a minister performs a marriage he or she is not authorized to perform.

Such as “gay marriage” if you are a United Methodist minister. Why? Because the Book of Discipline strictly forbids a minister from performing it:

We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

And from our chargeable offenses category:

A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference, local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged… with one or more of the following offenses…(b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings,15 including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;

It does not render the “proof of authority” needed to conduct said ceremony. Of course, this is applicable to those who have laid aside their credentials as well. They can’t even perform “straight marriages!”

I would say that if someone performed a marriage that was unauthorized, they would be committing not only a violation of the Book of Discipline, but so too a crime against the State of West Virginia.

If you aren’t authorized, you can’t do it. If you do it, and aren’t authorized, then you have fraudulently signed an official state document, representing yourself as something you are not.

This raises a few questions.

  • Why are we mixing Church and State here? In West Virginia, there are more marriages available than are allowed by The United Methodist Church. And it appears that the State could get involved in passively enforcing denominational law.
  • If we prosecute ministers for performing marriages between two people with the same sexual organs, what about those who may be outside the BoD in regards to performing marriages without authorization? For instance, if a minister who has refused an appointment and is still simply sitting in a  congregation (with pastoral duties, titles, etc… basically a former UMC clergy) performs a marriage, what then?

I’m opening to hearing your thoughts…

Admit it. When I mentioned marriage and West Virginia, you thought I was going to argue for cousin marriage. Nope. That’s North Carolina. And any comments about bestality, I’ll just point to Ohio. 

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17 Replies to “West Virginia, Marriage, and the #UMC”

  1. If a clergyperson’s credentials are duly submitted to the state, they are authorized to perform legal marriages within that state. Denominational law holds clergy accountable within their own comminion for what is right or wromg for their own group. If a UM pastor violates their laws, their conference will hold them accountable, possibly defrocking that clergy person and recinding their right to perform legal marriages in that state. The state has no jurisdiction in determining what marriages are permissible within a church or deniminational group. I see no conflict. The state (for the time being) can not force churches to accodomate people who are not in agreement with that group’s beliefs, like they can with businesses, e.g., cake decorating companies, photographers, wedding planners, et.al…..

    1. Tom, you are conflating a few issues here.

      1.) We are talking about a specific state — the greatest in the land, namely, ours — with a specific language addressing the “proof of authority.”

      2.) The BoD only authorizes certain marriages. The State recognizes and preserves that authority.

      3.) No one is talking about the State forcing anything. What we are talking about is the inability under current BoD language for WV UMC clerics to perform marriages they are not authorized to perform.

  2. There has always been a degree of church and state commingling in the American psyche. That was most certainly the case with failed Massachusetts Bay Colony experiment in New World theocracy.

    Pardon the pun, but these days, the arrangement is largely a marriage of convenience. This functional lunacy exists because BOTH church and state exist for the purpose of coercing the masses into obedience.

    Of course, thanks to the foresight of writers of The Constitution of the United States, this marriage isn’t official as it is in the British-Anglican and Roman-Catholic tradition.

  3. Serious answer to your question (and promotional tweet) is “No. It is not illegal under WV law for a duly-state-licensed Methodist minister to legally and ceremonially solemnize same-sex marriage in WV. ”

    There is no provision in state law to make judgement as to what UMC considers valid. No provision in state law to pick a side between a state-licensed officiant and his/her affiliated denomination of ordination should they disagree. So any marriage while the credentials still considered good by WV is & remains valid no matter what subsequent dispute may arise (for this or any othe reason) within the church or denomination.

    What could happen – if WV Annual Conf actually defrocked such a pastor – is that then WV AC could formally declare to the state that said pastor is no longer in communion. That would trigger state action to remove the officiant’s licensing credentials. But it would not be retroactive. And no crime would be deemed to have occurred under WV state law.


    Especially 48-2-402(c)2

    As to what is or is not kosher by UMC polity, there continues to be much debate. Differing church law positions are taken by pastors offiating over same-sex marriage vs the various judicatory authorities over them. The default view in past landed against the officiants of same sex marriage. Recently, and in some but not all regions, the tide is turning in favor of them by avoiding trials. And that process, obviously, is messy, painful and contentious. Will the old prohibition fall into desuetude? Or will the formal rules change to be more permissive? Or to be stricter and more punitive? Which route will be better for the church and closer to God’s will and better for fulfilling the great commission? [I mean these questions rhetorically]

    Thanks for the thought exercise here.

    1. Dave,

      I hate to disagree with you, not really but I have to say that, but I don’t think you’re correct. I know you aren’t, but I can’t tell you how I know you aren’t.

      You are looking at a credentialing process rather than the proof of authority. The proof of authority is where you need to look. The State recognizes the authority of the church which means, and I have this on good authority, that only those marriages authorized by the church can that minister perform. For instance, a UCC minister and an EC minister could perform any marriage. So could a PCUSA. But not a UMC.

      1. Nothing wrong with an honest and non-disagreeable difference of opinion. 🙂

        I understand the ground you stand on in asserting that someone could attempt to enforce an understanding such as the one you hypothesized. It does make sense within the bounds of a thought experiment. But asserting a claim in real life and having a court enforce it in actual fact are quite different standards. So I’ll stick to my conclusion based on the statutes I cited.

        The pastor properly credentialed under 48-2-402(a)+(b) may perform any marriage legal under WV law until such time as he or she may be disqualified under 48-2-402(c)2.

        I confess that my knowledge is based only on reading the WV statutes and understanding how such things play out in the MN county for which I work. I’ve attended a number of same-sex weddings, but the only one I’ve witnessed with two WV grooms occured in 2013 and in a different state where such weddings were already legal. So I’ve got a rooting interest, but only meager expertise.

        I am open to reconsidering if you can provide actual evidence such as (1) citing the statutes that (a) makes and (b) provides a criminal penalty and (2) some example where that angle has been pursued to a successful legal conclusion. In light of WV’s scant recent history of same-sex marriage, I’d also accept an example where WV invalidated a interracial marriage and/or prosecuted a minister in a case of an interracial marriage during a time when such a marriage was valid in the eyes of state law, valid in the judgement of the officiating pastor, but not correct according to the rules of said pastor’s church or denomination.

        Let me suggest that it does not behoove those of who care about religious liberty to suggest that the state has any proper role in taking sides in an intra-denominational argument. And the person’s whose religious liberty is at stake here is the pastor. His or or her religious liberty — in terms of US Constitution — resides in his/her person and is not subject — as to civil law — to what different stand his or her church or denominations may say about it. The church or denomination can take whatever subsequent action it wants with respect to that pastor’s status within the church or denomination. Religious associations have their religious liberty also protected by US Constitution. But even if they defrock the pastor after-the-fact, that does not invalidate any marriage joined by the pastor before that time and it does not expose the pastor (or now ex-pastor) to prosecution for the previous ceremony.

        That’s why ultimately the issue for WV law is one of credentials and not ecclesial authority. I see that Tom Shepherd offered much the same argument as mine, but hinted that perhaps the state may subsequently pass new laws interferring with a pastor’s religious liberty. I suggest that any state that attempts to do that will soon enough find the US Supreme Court reining that in. And, for that, we can be thankful to live in this great country.

        Lastly I won’t be buying the backup argument that a UMC minister can’t sign a marriage license where he/she reaffirms the authority to conduct said [same-sex] marriage ceremony. Obviously there is disagreement amongst Methodists on whether such things are authorized or not within our denomination. It doesn’t matter how clear-cut the issue seems to be to opposing parties within the denomination. In terms of civil validity of the pastor’s signature on the marriage license, it only matters what he/she in good faith believes it to be.

        1. Dave, look what Taylor said.

          And then reread the 48-2-402(a)(2). WV, my state, will only licenses for marriages authorized by the denomination. It doesn’t say any marriage. It clarifies: “is duly authorized to perform marriages by his or her church”

          You are correct — a court may not see it this way, but this does not mean we cannot look at this and wonder if in states with carefully worded language, if certain marriages (gay or otherwise) are now acts of fraud and if people wanted to pursue it, they could.

          As for the red herrings you place, you will have to demonstrate that the ME forbid interracial marriages and that the law was the same during this time.

          Further, I call your attention to this:

          For religious marriage celebrants, at least, it appears that the Secretary of State is responsible for enforcing this restriction on solemnization. Under state law, the Secretary of State is exclusively charged with reviewing and approving “religious representative[s] to celebrate the rites of marriage,” and with maintaining “a central registry of persons authorized to celebrate marriages in this state.” Id. § 48-2-402; see Exh. 4–5. No religious representative may solemnize a marriage in West Virginia without an authorizing “order” from the Secretary of State. Id.; see also id. § 48-2-401 (“A religious representative who has complied with the provisions of section 2-402 . . . is authorized to celebrate the rites of marriage in any county of this state.”).

          I hate to break out the law, Dave, it is what it is.

          Then, read this:

          Specifically page 1470 that says:

          helpful to note that those who perform religious marriage ceremonies are not themselves either actual or apparent agents of the state. They do not, for instance, act on behalf of the state or subject to its control.o Instead, they act solely on behalf of their private religious affiliations and subject to the respective dictates of each.

          This site (http://marriage.islaws.com/marriage-certificate-west-virginia) sums it up well:

          a religious representative unless otherwise restricted to sign a marriage certificate in WV according to §48-2-402

          At least in West Virginia, the restriction of the denomination overlays the authority of the State.

          1. I didn’t mean the interracial marriage scenario as a red herring nor as an insult. I was merely offering another example where a pastor could be at odds with his/her source of clergy credentials. I did not mean to impugn the UMC or any other denomination. I was simply suggesting that such a scenario could have happened in the past (with some other church or some other denomination) for this sake of this discussion of civil law. Another example could be a pastor marrying previously divorced persons in a situation where the denominational hierarchy disapproves religiously notwithstanding the marriage’s civil legality. Perhaps there are other analogous scenarios where you might find a real life example of what you have hypothesized.

            It seems, Joel, we are at an impasse in reading those statutes and reaching different conclusions. That’s okay. We are somewhat like like Inigo Montoya and the criminal Vizzini who differed over the meaning of the word “inconceivable.” The difference being that, in the Princess Bride, everything that Vizzini said was inconceivable came to pass, whereas, here, what you have conceived as possible is something I’m asserting will not withstand final court ruling. And, so far, there are no examples of it coming to pass. (Neither a suit pressed, nor a court validating it).

            I’ve enjoyed this discussion including your most recent links. I’ll exit the discussion now. By way of retort, please feel free to one final Princess Bride meme without my answering back. After all, it is your blog. 🙂

          2. Dave,

            The interracial bit is not perceived as an insult. I did not understand it as such. Rather, I am looking for precedent.

            I just happened to have scholarship and caselaw on my side.

  4. I think Joel is potentiallly correct de jure. De facto, I would imagine the state is somewhat unlikely to pursue all of the fraud cases its law, as written, could establish.

    However, The UMC could now have two Disciplinary bases for a charge, as the marriages it authorizes its clergy in good standing to perform are limited to those the state authorizes, too. This is why we cannot perform marriages “in the eyes of the church only.”

    So the state says the minister must be authorized by the denomination to preside legally. We are not credentialed to preside at same sex marriages anywhere, which means we are breaking state law in WV if we do that there, which means even though the state authorizes same-sex marriages, we’ve broken the “state-authorized” part of the Discipline, and not just the same-sex blessing/marriage part, as well.

    State marriage laws, and some municipal laws within states, can and do vary widely. Always know and follow the laws that apply where you will before you preside at any such services. If you want to risk being charged both ecclesially and civilly for the sake of principle (and I mean this with all respect), it sounds like WV may be one place you could do that. If you don’t, don’t act beyond the terms of the credentialling you actually have. And if those terms seem unacceptable, work to change them through the proper channels (General Conference action) of The UMC.

  5. My name is Doug, I am a member of United Methodist Church. I have a question if the church does not recognize gay marriage why does the church seek reconciling ministries. That seems somewhat hypocritical. Maybe the Methodist Church is just seeking the disposable income that gays have. It seems to me. This is something annual conference should be seriously discussing this year considering gay marriage is about to be legal nationwide according to the Supreme Court

    1. Doug,

      The United Methodist Church does not, officially, support any caucus group (such as Reconciling Ministries). Further, their statements on homosexuality separates the person and the acts as is common in many communions.

      The legality of gay marriage will not affect the UMC anymore than it affects Rome.

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