Most counties in Utah now have essentially two basic requirements for people who want to officiate weddings: They must be older than 18 and still be breathing. Fill out a form, and they’re good to go.
No longer does the person performing a marriage need to be clergy, a judge or an elected official — such as governor, mayor or county clerk — empowered to conduct such rites. That changed with a 2015 law when same-sex marriage became legal.
Utah lawmakers sought to allow county clerks with religious or moral objections to gay marriages to appoint someone else to perform them. Many clerks started designating any adult who wants to perform a marriage — allowing couples to choose a parent, grandparent, a friend or anyone else to officiate.
This wide-open option may become even more popular, clerks say, given a recent change by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to allow members to be joined in a civil ceremony recognized as the legal marriage just prior to a temple “sealing.”
Previously some families found it difficult to celebrate together because temple ceremonies — which exclude those of other faiths or members who do not meet Latter-day Saint worthiness requirements — required a one-year waiting period after a civil marriage.
Now, not only will families be able to join the celebration of the legal marriage, but loved ones barred from the temple also may perform that civil ceremony.
“It could make special designees more popular,” said Davis County Clerk-Auditor Curtis Koch, who estimates that between 5% and 10% of the marriages that his county licenses already opt for a friend or family member to officiate.
“I like to think I’m a nice guy, but I’ve performed marriages of people whom I will never see again,” Koch said. “I would rather choose to have someone who is meaningful to me: my father or my grandfather, or my wife’s father or mother.”
Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch — whose office advertises the option a bit more prominently online than most clerks — said many couples are surprised by the option, but quickly embrace it.
“They come in to buy a license, and they’re not sure who’s going to perform the marriage,” he said. “We let them know about this. They are like, ‘Really? My grandpa could actually perform the marriage? Or our best friend?’ They love the idea, and it’s quite popular.”
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said when she first took office 27 years ago, she would essentially allow the same thing by designating people as deputy clerks for a day. “But the Legislature didn’t like what I was doing and took the power away.”
She remembers then disappointing some people who sought permission for special officiants through the years — including an elderly former mayor who wanted to perform a great-grandson’s wedding and a soldier who wanted his commanding officer to preside.
“Things have gone full circle,” she said, “and now I have that power again, thanks to the changes they made when same-sex marriages became legal.”
The author of those changes — Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton — said the way the option is used now is an unintended result of legislation, but one he welcomes.
“The intent was trying to accommodate people’s deep-seated religious beliefs,” he said. After courts ruled that same-sex marriage must be allowed, Adams said some county clerks with religious objections to those unions did not want to perform them. A Kentucky clerk made headlines by refusing to issue licenses or to have anyone in her office perform them.
“We wanted to avoid that here,” Adams said. “So we just said, ‘Let the clerks have the responsibility to decide who can marry.’ I don’t know if it’s a bad thing to have this happening, but I surely have faith in the clerks.”
Hatch, the Weber County clerk-auditor, calls the law “a great compromise.” It also avoids use of ordination mills that many had used to become clergy to perform a friend’s wedding. “Our favorite example is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I think you can go online and become an ordained minister in five minutes.”
Hatch was one who did not want to perform same-sex marriages for religious reasons. With the new option, he stopped his office from performing other marriages — and pointed all couples who had desired his office to perform one to personal designees instead.
“It’s really helped to free up a lot of resources in our office. It’s shocking how much time they actually took,” Hatch said, adding he personally performed about 500 marriages a year.
Some county clerks allow people to become officiants for a day if they fill out a special form. Others also grant permanent permission. Some — such as Utah County — charge a $10 fee. No fees are charged in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.
Utah law also gives these special officiants great latitude in what their ceremonies may include. Forms require only that they include two official witnesses — and that spouses indicate or say that they are voluntarily entering into the marriage.
Some counties have chosen not to allow special officiants.
Summit County Clerk Kent Jones decided against it because everyone in his office was willing to perform same-sex marriages, so he saw no need for allowing personal designees.
“We just try to keep it as simple as can be,” he said. That includes being among the few counties willing to do a marriage anytime during business hours quickly at its counter.
Hatch said Weber County also is considering offering such counter weddings as a quick convenience.
“But I struggle a little bit with that because, you know, marriage is a sacred institution. And it’s so hard to see it come down to this. But it was already on its way when the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster got you the authority to perform marriages.”