Should I ever refuse to marry a couple?

I am a wedding officiant.  I’ve only been doing this for about half a year, but I’ve married about 40 couples so far and I have 15 scheduled in the coming months.

It’s immensely rewarding.  It’s wonderful to be part of one of the most significant moments of a couple’s life and see them smile and get overtaken with emotion as they say their vows.

Most of the couples I’ve been marrying are same-sex couples who, in most cases, have waited many years to finally be able to get married.  Some of them didn’t think that day would ever come in their lifetime.  For couples who have already been together for 10, 20, 30, and even 44 years (my record to date), there’s little doubt that their marriage will work out just fine.

It’s fun to observe the special dynamic that exists between the two partners.  It’s a little different for each couple, but it’s there.  I can see it in the way they joke with each other, make decisions with each other, and even gently push each other’s buttons.  In every couple I’ve been privileged to marry so far, I’ve had no doubt whatsoever that they belong together.

But recently, I have encountered a situation that has forced me to ask myself a difficult question:  are there any circumstances under which I should refuse to marry a couple?

A few days ago, I was confronted with a situation that is different from anything I’ve had to deal with up to this point in my relatively brief career.  I’ve been asked to marry a couple who, I have learned, are currently engaging in domestic violence.  Under the stress of planning their wedding and buying a house together, they are arguing daily, and some of the arguments have escalated to physical fighting.  It got so bad during a recent incident that a witness, after being unable to separate them and stop the fighting, called the police.  Both partners were arrested, charged with domestic violence, and spent the night in jail.

If I was one of the partners in such a relationship, I would be seriously considering whether marriage is the right choice for us to be making at this time.  Actually, I can say with certainty that if we were arguing on a regular basis I would be questioning the relationship, and if my fiancé was violent with me that would be the end of the relationship.  I have no desire for physical violence in my life.

But it’s not me.  I don’t walk in their shoes.  I don’t know if the arguing and fighting have started only recently or if they have been experiencing this throughout their relationship and this is normal for them.  Maybe it’s okay with them.  Maybe for them it’s just part of life.

When I learned about the domestic violence, I asked myself whether I could, in good conscience, officiate their wedding.

If I refused, they could easily find another officiant who will marry them – either one who is unaware of their situation or one who would do it anyway.

If I marry them, I am under no legal liability for what may happen in the future, since they are otherwise legally eligible to marry.  If they have a tumultuous marriage and a fiery divorce, I have no liability.  Even if one of them injures or kills the other one, I have no liability.  They can just as easily fight if they continue to live together unmarried as they could if they were married.

Prior to this situation, I have always been proud to marry anyone, without judgement.  As a passionate supporter of marriage equality, I’m happy to marry both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.  I couldn’t care less if the two people getting married are of different religions or no religion at all, if they are of different races, or if they have been previously married and divorced.

I believe that people deserve the right to marry the person they love most and wish to spend the rest of their life with.

I don’t require pre-marital counseling, and I’m not really qualified to give it.  I don’t have a degree in counseling, and that’s not required to become a wedding officiant.  Who am I to judge whether or not a couple should get married?

Even if I think the couple is making a terrible mistake by getting married, who am I to stop them?  What I think really makes no difference.  The world is full of parents who think that their child is making a mistake and marrying the wrong person, but ultimately, they have to stand by and let them make that mistake.   So do I.  (Of course, sometimes the marriage works out great and the parents were wrong.)

Not only does every person have the right to choose for themselves who to marry, every person has the right to make their own mistakes and deal with the consequences.

It occurs to me that this situation bears some similarity to the recent cases in which religiously conservative people who disapprove of same-sex marriage are refusing to provide their goods or services to the couple for their wedding.  Of course, I believe that is wrong.  If you are operating a business that is open to the public, you have an obligation (moral, and it should be legal) to serve everyone.  Otherwise, we return to the ugly days of segregation and blatant discrimination.

So how could I refuse service to someone on the basis of some objection I have based on what I think is right?

Back to my original question:   are there any circumstances under which I should refuse to marry a couple?

The only scenario I can think of is if I were to have clear evidence that one of the people was being coerced into getting married against his or her will.

My job is to deliver a wedding ceremony that is thoughtfully prepared with the couple’s input and professionally presented just the way they want it.  It is to bring joy and happiness to one of the most important days of their lives.  It is to add my legally-authorized signature to their marriage license and turn it in for them.  It is not to issue my approval.

Like everyone else, I want to do the right thing.  It’s not always easy to ascertain what the right thing is, nor is the right thing for others necessarily what I would choose for myself.

I hope this couple (and every couple I marry) has a long and happy marriage.  But ultimately that’s up to them, not me.

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Epilogue:  Ultimately, the couple chose another officiant, and didn’t bother to inform me that I wasn’t selected.  So, I didn’t have to marry them.  But this situation still gave me the benefit of reflecting upon what is the right thing to do in this scenario.


©2015 Dave Hughes.  All rights reserved.

Photo credit:  Tanatat at  Some rights reserved.

One Reply to “Should I ever refuse to marry a couple?”

  1. Shane Williams says:

    Outstanding article Dave. I haven’t officiated nearly as many, but I’ve already been asking myself the same question.

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