Q&A: Can Our Pastor Perform a Legal Marriage Ceremony While Aboard a Cruise Ship?

This complex question requires a knowledge of both state and international laws.

Our pastor is going on a cruise with his wife in the Caribbean. Several members of our church are going on this same cruise, including a couple who want the pastor to marry them while at sea. Can our pastor perform a legal marriage ceremony while aboard a cruise ship?

The authority of seafaring ministers to solemnize marriages at sea is complex, and involves a knowledge of both state and international laws. Listed below are some common scenarios, and the general rules that apply.

Intrastate cruises

Some cruises occur on lakes and rivers that are entirely within the territorial boundaries of a state. The law of that state will describe those ministers who are legally authorized to solemnize marriages. Ministers who are authorized to solemnize marriages in that state may do so on an intrastate cruise as readily as in a church.

In some cases, a minister from State A will be asked to solemnize a marriage on a cruise ship in State B. Whether the minister can lawfully perform the marriage in State B will depend on the law of State B. Many states have enacted laws that permit nonresident ministers to solemnize marriages, but most require the nonresident minister to comply with a registration procedure in the county or state where the marriage will be performed. To illustrate, one state law specifies that “a county clerk may authorize a licensed or ordained minister whose congregation is in another state to perform marriages in the county if the county clerk satisfies himself that the minister is in good standing with his denomination or church.” Another state law provides, “The secretary of state may issue a special license to an ordained or non-ordained minister residing out of the state … who is authorized or licensed by law to perform marriages in such individuals state of residence, authorizing him or her in a special case to marry a couple within the state.

Before agreeing to solemnize a marriage on a cruise ship in another state, ministers should consult with the state or county where the marriage will occur in order to determine their legal authority to perform the marriage as well any conditions that may apply. Alternatively, a nonresident minister can assist a resident minister in solemnizing a marriage ceremony, and this approach generally results in a legally valid marriage if the resident minister is the principal officiant.

Coastal ocean cruises

What about cruise ships that travel within the territorial waters of a state? For example, a cruise ship sails within a few miles of shore. Can a minister perform marriage ceremonies on a cruise ship off shore? The answer depends on international law. The maritime zones recognized under international law include internal waters, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf, the high seas and the “area.” Most of these maritime zones are measured from baselines determined in accordance with customary international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Generally speaking, the normal baseline is the low-water line along the coast as marked on charts recognized by the coastal state. Special rules for determining the baseline apply in a variety of circumstances, such as with bays, ports, mouths of rivers, deeply indented coastlines, fringing reefs, and road-steads.

Internal waters are the waters (for example, lakes and rivers) of a coastal state on the landward side of the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. Each coastal state has full sovereignty over its internal waters as if they were part of its land territory. Each coastal state may claim a territorial sea that extends seaward up to 12 nautical miles from its baselines. The coastal state exercises sovereignty over its territorial sea. The U.S. claimed a 12 nautical mile territorial sea in 1988 (Presidential Proclamation No. 5928, December 27, 1988).

In summary, a minister who is legally authorized to solemnize marriages in a coastal state generally may do so on vessels in that state’s territorial sea (within 12 nautical miles from shore). However, nonresident ministers who desire to solemnize a marriage on board a vessel in a coastal state’s territorial sea must check with civil authorities in the coastal state to ensure compliance with any legal requirements that may apply.

Marriages on-board vessels in international waters

Any part of an ocean that has not been claimed is generally known as international waters. Conduct on international waters is governed by international treaty. Generally, ministers who are citizens of the United States have no legal authority to solemnize marriages on vessels in international waters. They may solemnize a marriage on shore before the cruise ship departs (assuming they are legally authorized to do so), and then perform a religious ceremony on board in international waters with the understanding that the latter ceremony has no legal significance.

Note that marriages occurring on board a cruise ship may be governed by the laws of the country of vessel registration, even when anchored at a US port. To play it safe, check with civil authorities, or have the marriage solemnized on land prior to departure.

Marriages in foreign ports

Can a minister perform a legal marriage at a cruise ship’s port of call in a foreign nation? To illustrate, what if a Caribbean cruise ship docks at Nassau in the Bahamas? Is a minister who is a US citizen legally authorized to perform a marriage in that location? Note the following considerations:

  • The legal requirements for a valid marriage in the foreign port must be satisfied, and these may include: (1) A residency requirement. The US State Department warns that “there is almost a lengthy waiting period” for marriages performed abroad. (2) Documentation and authentication. According to the US State Department, “most countries require that a valid US passport be presented. In addition, birth certificates, divorce decrees, and death certificates are frequently required. Some countries require that the documents presented to the marriage registrar first be authenticated in the United States by a consular official of that country. This process can be time consuming and expensive.” (3) affidavit of eligibility to marry. According to the US State Department, “All civil law countries require proof of legal capacity to enter into a marriage contract in the form of certification by competent authority that no impediment exists to the marriage. No such document exists in the United States. Unless the foreign authorities will allow such a statement to be executed before one of their consular officials in the United States, it will be necessary for the parties to a prospective marriage abroad to execute an affidavit at the American embassy or consulate in the country in which the marriage will occur stating that they are free to marry. This is called an affidavit of eligibility to marry. Some countries also require witnesses who will execute affidavits to the effect that the parties are free to marry.” (4) Blood tests. Many countries, like the US, require premarital blood tests.
  • Most cruise lines offer wedding consultants who can assist in complying with foreign requirements.
  • Marriages that are legally valid in a foreign country generally are deemed valid in any state in the US. A US State Department publication states: “In general, marriages which are legally performed and valid abroad are also legally valid in the United States. Inquiries regarding the validity of a marriage abroad should be directed to the attorney general of the state in the United States where the parties to the marriage live. The embassy or tourist information bureau of the country in which the marriage is to be performed is the best source of information about marriage in that country. Some general information on marriage in a limited number of countries can be obtained from Overseas Citizens Services, Room 4811, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520. In addition, American embassies and consulates abroad frequently have information about marriage in the country in which they are located.”
  • As noted above, this issue can be avoided if a marriage is solemnized prior to departure, and then a religious ceremony is conducted in a foreign port.


A number of complex legal issues surround the solemnization of marriages on cruise ships. Several of these are addressed in this response. The takeaway point is this: ministers who fail to perform a legally valid marriage may be personally liable under both civil and criminal law, and so they should not agree to solemnize a marriage aboard a cruise ship without full assurance that the ceremony will be legally valid.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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