Virginia is for lovers? As pandemic dashes nuptial plans, state lags in providing online options for couples

May 11, 2020 12:01 am

Newly married Tyler and Caryn Suiters embrace following their marriage ceremony performed by Rev. Andrew Merrow in an otherwise empty St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on April 18, 2020, in Arlington. Rev. Merrow and his wife Cameron Merrow were the only other attendees at the ceremony due to social distancing guidelines implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ah spring, when wedding bells peal, couples say “I do,” rice and bridal bouquets fly, toasts are raised and jubilant friends and family drink, dance, dine … and drink.

Like life’s other joyful moments, this spring’s long-planned weddings have either been postponed or drastically scaled back by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some couples press ahead using videoconferencing to remotely connect loved ones and assure social distancing.

Virginia, which has famously marketed itself since 1969 as being “for lovers,” has done little to automate essential legal and administrative wedding chores for couples whose expensive and meticulous plans for their dream day have been wrecked by coronavirus restrictions. Venues and vendors have to be canceled or rescheduled.

Loftan and Randy Hooker got married on March 21, after Gov. Ralph Northam had already limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer and two days before he would order outright shutdowns of non-essential commerce and services.

For what was only a tiny wedding to begin with – only 25 guests in the small Enchanted Garden of Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum – the Hookers had to pare the list by more than half to meet social distancing rules.

“We were the lucky ones,” said Loftan Hooker. The museum had already closed ahead of Northam’s formal shutdown order, she said, “but then we got a call from the director, and she said, ‘We’re closed, but all of us could use some happiness right now, so we want to open it up for you.’”

In January and February, Eric Clary and Reilly McWhorter began vetting sites and service providers for the wedding they had initially planned for October. In mid-March, the pandemic scuttled their plans.

“We’d found a place, gotten things together and all we had to do was put down a deposit on it,” said Clary, a Richmond-area information technology professional.

Because so much uncertainty clouded so many factors, Clary said, the date was pushed back to October 2021. Still, he noted, who knows how this year’s postponements will affect next year’s calendar.

“We may have to revise the (guest) list,” he said. “We had planned on 100, but who knows who is going to make it through COVID-19? Who’s going to have a job? Am I going to have a job?”

The Rev. Lindsey Baynham has more insights than most into the moving parts of weddings. As an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church, she has officiated more than 30. So when her fiancé, Matthew Freeman, popped the question about the time home sheltering became Virginia law, she knew challenges loomed for their December wedding.

“As we started planning and reaching out to vendors, they were mindful of that,” she said. “We looked toward December and said, ‘OK, we can get married with everyone we want or just 15 or 10 of our people.’”                              

Freeman, a consultant who advises companies on diversity and inclusion matters, said the couple had to make sure that workable cancellation or rescheduling policies are written into their contracts.

“This isn’t going to stop Lindsey and me from marrying, but there are emotional and practical burdens of planning and preparation in this difficult time,” he said.

Government in Virginia has done little to ease those burdens. Just getting a marriage license is a crapshoot depending on the jurisdiction. The Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk’s office is at the top of the class for allowing marriage license applications, processing and issuance to be done remotely, by appointment, during the pandemic. Other localities force couples to venture to courthouses — many working limited hours with skeleton staffs — and appear before a Circuit Court clerk to secure licenses.

Unresolved (and evidently never pondered) is whether a celebrant in Virginia – clergy, justices of the peace or lay persons – may preside remotely over nuptials or must be physically present.

Some states have acted on their own to permit virtual officiants for weddings during the outbreak. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California issued executive orders in April allowing their states’ residents to get marriage licenses remotely and have ceremonies conducted via videoconferencing. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a similar order in late March that expired in late April.

The Rev. Cory Newell, whose firm marries about 500 couples a year and claims to be “Virginia’s No. 1 Wedding Pastor,” has not presided digitally over any weddings. As a minister, he considers his ceremonies to be sacraments, not civil proceedings, and believes presence is an important spiritual element.

But these are unprecedented times and he does not rule out officiating services under compelling circumstances via teleconferencing apps such as Zoom, Google, Skype, Facetime or Microsoft Teams.

“Out of 50-75 requests I’ve had since this (social distancing) started, two people have asked for Zoom services,” said Newell, whose firm consists of himself and three other ministers.

One of the two requests, he said, is from a couple in Washington, D.C., who had planned to marry next year but wish to move up the date and do it remotely so that a terminally ill loved one can see it.

Sympathetic to the plight of those who inquire about remote celebrants but mindful of the law, Newell said he called a friend who is a Virginia Circuit Court judge for guidance on how courts might interpret an online wedding. Newell declined to identify the judge.

“My judge friend describes it as a gray area in the law,” Newell said. “Considering the circumstances of the shelter-in-place order, he said that as long as the letter of the law is observed that he didn’t think it would antagonize a court.”

The letter of Virginia’s relevant marriage law does not expressly prohibit virtual wedding officiants. In fact, it doesn’t seem to contemplate the possibility of it. But by requiring that wedding celebrants, along with the newlyweds, sign and complete marriage certificates after the ceremony, the statute appears to assume that all of the signatories are together in the same place. The law requires wedding officiants to return completed certificates to the court clerks’ offices within five days after each ceremony.

Newell said that before he would consider conducting any wedding ceremony virtually, he’d have to have all the legally required documentation in his possession and ready for his signature.

“I wouldn’t do a Zoom wedding until the marriage license is in front of me,” he said.

Also, he’d need a way to verify that the couple he is pronouncing wed are actually in Virginia, as state law requires.

Aaron Riddle, a court-appointed marriage commissioner and officiant in Frederick County who makes the pastoral surroundings outside his mountaintop home available for couples to wed during the pandemic, won’t consider conducting services remotely for that reason.

“It’s difficult to ascertain if the couple is in fact in Virginia when getting married if they are doing the ceremony online,” Riddle said. “For example, if the couple resides in West Virginia, has obtained a marriage license in Virginia and wants to perform a virtual ceremony, how am I to be 100 percent sure they are in Virginia when the ceremony is taking place, even if they have sworn to it?”

While the pandemic has all but shut down large event weddings, Newell and Riddle say, people are still getting married despite the obstacles. Elopements are up. And couples are making use of streaming video to share the moment with those who can’t be present.

Loftan Hooker said the experience has been a transformative teaching moment on the power of letting go.

“This whole period for us has been a lesson that we can do more with less, that sometimes you just have to trust the universe that things are going to happen exactly the way they should,” she said. “Mom told me after our service that because there were so few people present – just the short list – that it felt like concentrated love.”


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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]