Recent Developments in Tennessee Regarding Marriage and Divorce

A Tennessee court ruled that a marriage was valid despite the husband’s claim that the officiating clergyman was not qualified to perform marriages and had failed to return a signed marriage license to the county clerk within three days of the marriage as required by law.

Church Law and Tax1999-01-01

Marriage and Divorce

Key point. A person’s legal authority to solemnize marriages is determined by the tenets of his or her religion.

Key point. A marriage is not necessarily void because a technical requirement is not met.

A Tennessee court ruled that a marriage was valid despite the husband’s claim that the officiating clergyman was not qualified to perform marriages and had failed to return a signed marriage license to the county clerk within three days of the marriage as required by law. An Iranian couple living in Tennessee were formally engaged in Iran in October of 1994. After returning to Tennessee, the man negotiated a marriage contract the woman’s father in accordance with Islamic custom. In this contract, the man agreed that his future wife’s dowry would be 1,400 Iranian gold coins and that he would pay her 10,000 Iranian gold coins if he violated any provision of the contract. Because Islamic law permits a man to have four wives, the man also agreed that he would not marry anyone else if the parties ever returned to live in Iran. The couple obtained a marriage license from the county clerk’s office in December of 1994. The man asked an acquaintance, Mr. Tarahian, to perform an Islamic “blessing” for the couple. A “blessing” is a formalized ceremony intended to hold out a couple as being married. Mr. Tarahian was not an “imam” (an Islamic spiritual leader roughly equivalent to a pastor or priest). On December 17, 1994, Mr. Tarahian blessed the couple in the presence of four witnesses. Following the ceremony, the couple and Mr. Tarahian signed a marriage certificate that was filed with a mosque in Nashville. Mr. Tarahian did not, however, receive or sign the Tennessee marriage license. The husband kept this document because it was one of the documents required to be filed with the government of Iran in order to make an official record of the marriage in that country. The couple could not begin living together as husband and wife following the blessing because Islamic custom required them to first have a formal wedding reception. A formal wedding reception took place on December 30, 1994. Problems arose within days of the reception. The husband informed his wife that he would not record their marriage license unless she would agree to sign another premarital agreement and relinquish her dowry and earlier marriage contract. He also asserted that their marriage was invalid because Mr. Tarahian did not have the authority to perform the Islamic blessing, and the marriage license was not filed with the county clerk’s office within three days of the marriage as required by law. The parties separated in January of 1995. The wife and Mr. Tarahian later completed and filed another marriage license form. Mr. Tarahian signed the form as the officiant but did not date his signature or indicate on the form that he was an “imam”. Apparently someone in the clerk’s office added the date and the designation before filing the license with the Tennessee Department of Health. The husband did not sign this marriage license.

The husband later sought an annulment, asserting that the marriage was invalid because Mr. Tarahian was not qualified to solemnize marriages and because the marriage license had not been returned to the county clerk within three days following the blessing. The trial court agreed with the husband on both grounds and entered an order finding the marriage to be void from its inception. The wife appealed. She wanted the annulment rescinded and a divorce granted in order to make her eligible for a larger share of her former husband’s property.

Solemnization of Marriage

Tennessee law provides that “[a]ll regular ministers of the gospel of every denomination, and Jewish rabbis, more than eighteen (18) years of age, having the care of souls …

may solemnize the rite of matrimony.” The appeals court noted that “since the courts look to the tenets of the particular religion to determine whether a particular person is a regular minister having care of souls [the husband] has the burden of proving that Mr. Tarahian cannot administer Islamic blessings under Islamic law.”

The court noted that Mr. Tarahian testified in a deposition that he was qualified to perform Islamic blessings and that he had performed a number of these blessings in the past. The husband countered by submitting two letters purporting to demonstrate that Mr. Tarahian was not recognized as an imam in Nashville’s Persian community. The court rejected these letters as inadmissible hearsay containing mere opinions “not relevant to Mr. Tarahian’s qualifications to solemnize marriages” under Tennessee law.

The court placed great reliance on the affidavit of an expert in Islamic Studies who explained that Islam “has consistently rejected the distinction between clergy and laity,” and that Islamic law “stipulates quite precisely that anyone with the requisite knowledge of Islamic law is competent to perform religious ceremonies, including marriage. One is not required to have an official position in a religious institution such as a mosque in order to be qualified to perform such ceremonies.” As a result, Mr. Tarahian, while not an imam, was clearly qualified to perform a marriage or blessing because of his knowledge of Islamic law.

Failure to return the Marriage License

The husband also asserted that the marriage was void because the marriage license was not filed with the county clerk within three days after the December 17, 1994 blessing. In fact, the original marriage license was never filed with the clerk’s office. The only license that was filed was the second marriage license that had been obtained by the wife and Mr. Tarahian, and that was filed nearly two months after the marriage.

The court noted that a marriage license had been filed with the clerk’s office, although after the deadline. Therefore, in order for the husband to prevail, he “must demonstrate that the late filing of a marriage license invalidates a marriage as a matter of law.” The court concluded that this could not be done:

The failure of an officiant to return the marriage license to the issuing clerk within three days after the ceremony does not invalidate the marriage. Thus, if Mr. Tarahian could solemnize marriages under Tennessee law, his failure to return the completed marriage license within the time required by [state law] does not undermine the validity of the marriage. The purpose of the filing requirement is to assure the preservation of a reliable, accurate record of a marriage. The filing of the second marriage license … satisfies this requirement as long as it contains the information required by law.

The court concluded that the second license “appears to be appropriate on its face” since it was signed by the officiant and contains all of the information required by state law (licenses do not need to be signed by both spouses under Tennessee law). The court also pointed out that the second license had not been rejected by either the clerk or the state department of health.

The court noted that “Tennessee protects the institution of marriage by presuming that regularly solemnized marriages are valid. Thus, persons challenging a marriage must provide cogent and convincing evidence that the marriage is invalid. [The husband] has not carried his burden.”

Application. This case illustrates a couple of important points. First, the court reached the extraordinary conclusion that a person need not be a member of the clergy to perform a valid marriage under state law. All that is necessary is that the person’s religion recognize him or her as possessing the authority to do so. This conclusion has been rejected by a number of other courts. Second, the court reached the more conventional conclusion that marriages are not necessarily void simply because not all of the technical requirements prescribed by state law are satisfied. Clergy who fail to comply with a technical requirement for marriages are not necessarily giving a couple a basis for an annulment at some later time. Aghili v. Saadatnejadi, 958 S.W.2d 784 (Tenn. App. 1997). [Performance of Marriage Ceremonies]

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