A bride called me on May 3rd and asked me if I could officiate her small intimate family wedding today. I told her I was available and emailed a contract to her which she printed out and mailed to me with her check for my fee. When I received it, I sent her a "proposed" ceremony based on what she told me she and her fiance wanted. She made some revisions and we had a final ceremony. In the process of making our arrangements, I informed her that it was the responsibility of the couple to obtain a valid NC marriage license and bring it to the wedding because it was required to be in my possession during the ceremony for their marriage to be legal.
I arrived at the wedding site and met her parents and the photographer. Then the couple and her son arrived about 10 minutes later. I introduced myself and asked for the marriage license. The bride said that they had decided not to do the legal wedding today but wait until a later date in another city when his children could be present. I then told them all that I was sorry but I could not perform a wedding ceremony without a marriage license because it was illegal and I could lose my authority to solemnize marriages in North Carolina. I explained in detail that to do so would misrepresent their relationship as a legal one when it was not and I was not allowed to do that. I apologized again and then left. I felt bad for the couple yet I felt I had to do the right thing and I take what I do seriously.
The North Carolina Marriage Laws read as follows:
§ 51-6. Solemnization without license unlawful.
No minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife, until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage of the said persons, signed by the register of deeds of the county in which the marriage license was issued or by a lawful deputy or assistant. There must be at least two witnesses to the marriage ceremony. Whenever a man and woman have been lawfully married in accordance with the laws of the state in which the marriage ceremony took place, and said marriage was performed by a magistrate or some other civil official duly authorized to perform such ceremony, and the parties thereafter wish to confirm their marriage vows before an ordained minister or minister authorized by a church, or in a ceremony recognized by any religious denomination, federally or State recognized Indian Nation or Tribe, nothing herein shall be deemed to prohibit such confirmation ceremony; provided, however, that such confirmation ceremony shall not be deemed in law to be a marriage ceremony, such confirmation ceremony shall in no way affect the validity or invalidity of the prior marriage ceremony performed by a civil official, no license for such confirmation ceremony shall be issued by a register of deeds, and no record of such confirmation ceremony may be kept by a register of deeds. (1871-2, c. 193, s. 4; Code, s.1813; Rev., s. 2086; C.S., s. 2498; 1957, c. 1261; 1959, c. 338; 1967, c. 957, ss. 6, 9; 1977, c.592, s. 2; 2001-62, s. 6.)
§ 51-7. Penalty for solemnizing without license.
Every minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State, who marries any couple without a license being first delivered to that person, as required by law, or after the expiration of such license, or who fails to return such license to the register of deeds within 10 days after any marriage celebrated by virtue thereof, with the certificate appended thereto duly filled up and signed, shall forfeit and pay two hundred dollars($200.00) to any person who sues therefore, and shall also be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
As you can see above, the reverse situation is not the same. Many couples these days get legally married first at the courthouse or in a small private wedding and then later have a big "public" wedding. There are many reasons--military deployment, financial crises, health issues, pregnancy, etc. I have no problem doing the big "public" wedding without a marriage license because it does not violate the Marriage Laws since the couple is already legally married and I am not misrepresenting their legal status. Technically the "public" wedding ceremony is a renewal of vows ceremony.