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Red tape weddings: Rhode Island couples get bills passed to use nontraditional officiants

06/05/2015 01:11 EDT | Updated 06/05/2016 05:59 EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Abby Bailey is marrying her college boyfriend in August in her hometown of Portsmouth. She has the perfect ceremony spot at a waterfront mansion. She has the wedding officiant — her dad. And she has had her bill passed by the General Assembly.

Anyone who wants to get married in Rhode Island by a nontraditional officiant needs an act of the legislature to do it. It's an unusual piece of red tape that's dealt with in many other states by allowing a government office to grant permission.

So many people did it last year in Rhode Island that nearly 20 per cent of legislation sent to the governor involved a marriage solemnization bill, more than any other category of bills.

Bailey is relieved to have hers in hand so her father can perform the ceremony.

"I'd regret it if I didn't have him do it," the 22-year-old said.

Requests for such bills have steadily climbed to a high of nearly 150 last year. Over 100 have been introduced this year so far.

"It does appear to be kind of a silly waste of the General Assembly's time," said attorney Diana Pearson, who had a bill passed so she could officiate at her friend's wedding in July. "I'm just an advocate of leaving them with the important stuff."

Democratic state Sen. Michael McCaffrey agrees.

Sitting through Senate Judiciary Committee meetings, where many of these bills originate, McCaffrey thought to himself that there's got to be a better way.

McCaffrey, the committee chairman, has been trying for at least five years to set up a process in which officiants can apply for a temporary license through the secretary of state's office and pay $150 for processing.

The Senate passed McCaffrey's bill in May. But like in years past, there's resistance in the House. Representatives say they like the interaction with their constituents, especially for such a special reason.

"I'm really proud to help people begin the rest of their lives married," said Democratic Rep. Marvin Abney. Abney introduces a fair number of bills since he represents parts of Newport and Middletown, two popular wedding destinations.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello doesn't want to impose a cost on something that's free now, and he wants lawmakers to maintain control of the process. Passing the bills isn't a burden, said Mattiello, a Democrat.

"I don't see the reason why we would give up that positive interaction and place a financial burden on our constituents," he said.

No one could pinpoint exactly why more people are asking for these bills lately. Some lawmakers surmised that nontraditional ceremonies are more popular now, while Mattiello said residents may be more aware that getting a bill is an option. Democratic Rep. Arthur Handy reported seeing a number of requests from same-sex couples. Rhode Island legalized gay marriage in 2013.

Handy said passing these bills is a nice thing to do for people, but it can cause confusion and stress for couples who sometimes have to scramble to get one in time.

The legislature's session begins in early January and typically ends in late June. Any couple who gets engaged in the summer and plans a New Year's Eve wedding, for instance, couldn't get a bill passed for their officiant. They would have to use someone permitted by law to perform a marriage, such as an ordained clergy member or judge.

Mattiello said this hitch isn't enough of a reason to change the system. His office wasn't aware of anyone being turned down for a bill to solemnize a marriage.

"You've got to plan ahead," Mattiello said.

Bailey's father, Stephen, could have gotten ordained online within minutes so he wouldn't need a bill. Far more people get married in Rhode Island each year without one.

A headmaster at a Christian school, Stephen Bailey said clergy members hold a high office and it's not meant for just anyone who wants to perform a marriage.

"That oversight, with that sense of importance, certainly is welcomed as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Evan Shanley is waiting for his bill to pass so his uncle can perform his ceremony in October. The 28-year-old attorney said he didn't want to burden his uncle with getting ordained online, and the bill process is easy.

"It's also kind of cool to have a bill passed on your behalf, or on behalf of someone close to you," he said. "It's supposed to be a special day and it can add something to it, for someone who wants to do so."

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