The following op-ed was published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on July 17, 2020. It calls for Governor Sununu to issue an executive order to undo the temporary marriage officiant authorization.
Loretta Jay: Amendment undermines marriages… literally
Unlike professional marriage officiants, lay officiants are careless; up to 90% make serious errors. New Hampshire is taking extraordinary measures to stay safe during the pandemic. It is counter-intuitive to compound the danger by suddenly loosening rules — especially around high-risk group gatherings.
States that have lay officiants are speaking out. Current and past presidents of the Vermont Town Clerk Association have gone on record reporting that the aforementioned errors double town clerks’ workload and invalidate marriages. Temporary officiant rules can also be used by those with nefarious intentions, making victims of child and forced marriage more vulnerable. Because of the problems, Massachusetts introduced a legislative resolve to evaluate its temporary officiant rule.
JPs take their responsibility seriously.
An Act Establishing a Special Marriage Officiant License (HB 1599) died in the House mid-June. Lawmakers then made their surprise 11th-hour move, reviving the language of the bill as an amendment: first to HB 1491, and when that failed, then to HB 1240. The latter bill protects students from sexual assault, guaranteeing the votes to pass and protection from a veto.
During the winter/spring 2020 session, both the New Hampshire City and Town Clerk Association (NHCTCA) and the Justice of the Peace Association (JPus) with 58 JPs signing on, submitted testimony in opposition to the original legislation (HB 1599). Our members were ready to let their senators hear about the significant problems — had they been alerted that the matter was under consideration. Instead, we learned after-the-fact that the bill passed without opportunity for voters to get involved. This move leaves us feeling trapped, our hands tied, unable to have our voice heard.
Governor Sununu: Undo the special marriage officiant amendment
Risks due to COVID-19 have made the problems related to amateur officiants more urgent. As the state opens up, keeping our community safe is of the utmost importance. JPus has taken a lead, recognizing the responsibility that professional marriage officiants have. We developed a training certification, COVID-19 Best Practices for Marriage Officiants, heeding OSHA guidance. We’re a conduit between the Secretary of State’s Office and JPs, and we also have other resources for officiants and couples to help them navigate these uncertain times. We’re all facing challenges. This is when we need professionals to step up and advise us, to be a part of our system helping us stay safe.
Because there is no line-item veto option in the state, we ask Governor Sununu to take action to undo the special marriage officiant amendment. The Justice of the Peace Association proposed alternative language that would reduce risk for couples by requiring a JP witness the ceremonies of amateur officiants. Incorporating this as an executive order would satisfy the spirit of the amendment, while simultaneously resolving the problems. Alternatively, suspend the rule all together, and next year let’s get a better, more thought-through bill on the table instead.
Loretta Jay is the managing member of the Justice of the Peace Association, a professional membership organization serving civil marriage officiants in all New England states except Rhode Island.
★ Details about the spring 2020’s behind-the-scenes activity fighting amateur officiants
★ Read JPus’ proposed alternative language for the special marriage officiant bill.
★ JPus submitted a One-Day Rule white paper to MA Governor Baker’s office that summarizes the problems with temporary officiants in the state. These problems would likely happen in New Hampshire, too.
★ Legalizing temporary marriage officiants jeopardizes the systems that are in place to protect children from coercion into marriage. Read about JPus’ efforts to end child and forced marriage.