Here come the bride and groom.
Tuesday is Valentine’s Day, when thoughts naturally turn to love and marriage and — sigh — weddings.
We all know people who’ve spent months planning their elaborate ceremonies, right down to the pedigree of the doves released outside the church.
But what if that’s not your particular cup of bubbly? Time, money, an allergic reaction to tulle: There are lots of legitimate reasons for people to want to say “I do” and be done with it all in a day. And not just on Feb. 14.
“People are looking for an alternative,” said Alice Johnston, owner of Pristine Chapel Lakeside in Jonesboro. “Even though they’ve attuned themselves to the fact they’re not going to have a big wedding with all the long-term planning, they still want it to feel special.”
Pristine is hosting 10 weddings in 10 hours this Valentine’s Day. But its “One Hour Wedding” package is available year-round, offering what Johnston describes as “the courthouse alternative” to speed-marrying.
Not that there’s anything wrong with getting married at the courthouse. It’s simply not the only option available anymore to metro Atlantans who envision a quick sprint in place of the traditional wedding march.
For better or worse, keep reading to discover four ways to get married in a day.
Ringgold. You’ve heard of the “Destination Wedding?”
Meet its birthplace.
For decades, couples have been traveling to this little town about 90 miles north of Atlanta to marry in a day.
For a long time, they had to.
“There used to be only two places in Georgia where you could get a marriage license and blood test in one day,” said Catoosa County Probate Judge Gene Lowery, whose office processes applications for marriage licenses (no waiting time) and gun licenses (about a 10-day wait). “This was one of them.”
Georgia eliminated the blood test requirement for marriage in 2003. But that hasn’t stopped the influx of couples seeking to obtain wedded bliss, frequently within the space of a few hours.
“It’s tradition,” said Lowery, who estimates they issue about 120 marriage licenses every month in this county seat of 5,150 people located 17 miles from Chattanooga. “You hear things like, ‘My grandparents and parents all got married here, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”
Or maybe they know that Dolly Parton and Carl Dean got married here in May 1966 (the 20-year-old Parton’s occupation was listed as “Intertainer”[sic] on the license application). So did George Jones and Tammy Wynette in February 1969 (she applied under her real name, Virginia Byrd, and both country singing stars listed two previous marriages that ended in divorce). These applications and licenses are kept in a locked safe at the small courthouse where Lowery himself has married as many as 13 couples in one day (it was a Valentine’s Day) and estimates he marries at least eight couples every month.
Many more couples head directly across the street to the Ringgold Wedding Chapel after obtaining their licenses. Open since 1987, it’s been the site of 3,500 weddings in just the four years she’s owned it, Teresa James said. Once a Methodist church, the lovely chapel with original stained glass windows can and does host weddings that are planned weeks or months in advance.
Still, says James, whose building sustained no significant physical damage when deadly tornados ripped through Ringgold last April, “A good 75 percent of them [who come in] want to be married then and there.”
That certainly was the case on a recent Tuesday when Martilia Kennedy poked her head in the door. She and her fiancé, Jalen Fields, had just driven here from Milledgeville, fully expecting to be married at the courthouse after obtaining their license; when they heard about the wedding chapel, they liked the idea of having the ceremony in a nicer setting — but only if they could do it that same day.
They could, James and the chapel’s on-site minister, Troy Simmons, assured them. They had to, the couple said, for one very good, made-for-Georgia reason: The next day was college football’s National Signing day. Fields, 19, a highly sought after defensive end from Dalton who’s currently enrolled at Georgia Military junior college, had narrowed his decision down to two schools and had to announce his choice in Milledgeville the following morning.
“Today’s the perfect day to get married,” the 6-foot-5 Fields said, smiling down at his bride-to-be. “I’m 100 percent sure about this decision. The other one, I’m still working out in my mind.”
In Georgia, only a judge, minister or “other person of any religious society or sect authorized by the rules of such society,” can perform a marriage ceremony, according to the Gwinnett County Magistrate Court, which marries people for free seven days a week if they already have a license (www.gwinnettcourts.com).
On weekends, holidays and weekdays after 5 p.m., that means making a trip to the courtrooms at the Gwinnett Detention Center, where the magistrate is stationed. But if saying “I do” in the pokey isn’t palatable, many county court systems maintain lists of judges who will perform weddings by appointment.
Sometimes, by very fast appointment. Couples can marry at Cobb County Magistrate Court daily at 6 p.m. (and noon on weekends), or schedule a wedding outside the office for a base fee of $150. The latter can all happen in a day, depending on the availability of a magistrate.
“I don’t think I’ve ever married someone on the same day, although I certainly would,” said Alpharetta Municipal Court Judge Jim Matoney, who suspects he’d do more “same day” weddings if couples didn’t need to obtain a marriage license first.
Matoney, 81, has married people everywhere from a hospital room to the rooftop of the Muse’s Building in downtown Atlanta. Usually, the ceremonies, which he doesn’t charge for, take place in his office between court sessions.
“It takes about five minutes, but the most important line is, ‘I now pronounce you ...,’ ” chuckled Matoney, who’ll celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary in June.
It could be the biggest hurdle to overcome on the way to a same-day wedding: Finding a man or woman of the cloth — fast — to say the vows. At Pristine Chapel Lakeside, which provides an interdenominational minister as part of the “One Hour Wedding” package ($599), “the only thing that would exclude us being able to do [a same-day wedding] would be if we can’t get a minister on that particular day and time,” said owner Alice Johnston. “But they can bring their own minister.”
What else do you really need, asks Jeremiah O’Keefe-West.
“I could do [a same-day wedding] for someone who called me today,” the 68-year-old Buckhead resident boomed in his native Irish brogue. “There’s no witness needed and no blood test. Provided there’s no hitches, we’d do the wedding and end of story.”
Easy for him to say: A non-denominational minister ordained by the National Chaplains Association, O’Keefe-West isn’t merely a wedding vet who performs “somewhere in the region of 150 to 175 a year.” Most are planned several weeks or months ahead, but he’s done a few same-day ceremonies in places such as Piedmont Park.
He’s also a fast turn wedding vet: For each of the last three years, he officiated at more than two dozen weddings conducted in 15-minute intervals on Valentine’s Day (or close to it) at Rhodes Hall, headquarters of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation in Midtown Atlanta.
That event isn’t taking place this year; instead on Tuesday, O’Keefe-West will be in Macon, speed-marrying couples at Hay House, another Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation site. For $300, couples get a private 15-minute ceremony and champagne toast before as many as 20 guests, instead of the usual $2,000 minimum cost to rent Hay House.
O’Keefe-West usually charges $300 to perform a wedding (more if he has to travel outside metro Atlanta), but is billing Hay House for only two ceremonies Valentine’s Day.
“It’s like giving back a little bit,” said O’Keefe-West, who feels fortunate to have found his “very unusual niche.”
Like most brides, Daphne Jordan (nee Emmon) woke up excited on her wedding day.
Unlike most, however, it was because she’d just then decided it was her wedding day.
“She said, ‘Today’s the day,’” Walter Jordan, a restaurant consultant, recounted with a chuckle, clutching his new wife’s hand at the Fulton County Justice Center on a recent Friday afternoon.
“We got the license an hour ago,” said Daphne Jordan, a pharmaceutical sales rep.
They weren’t leaping into marriage — the Atlanta couple have known each other for 20-plus years and he’d proposed about a month earlier — they were just leaping into the marriage ceremony. Along with 29 other couples, they’d taken part in the “group” wedding service that Fulton County Probate Judge Pinkie Toomer officiates every Friday at 3 p.m.
“It’s a way of serving people,” Toomer said before heading into Courtroom 2B, where bailiffs and sheriff’s officers were organizing the couples and their paperwork (“Use your real name,” one officer joked to a groom signing in) and the jury box was filled with camera-wielding family and friends. “Everyone doesn’t have the money for a big ceremony or the time to a plan one,” the judge continued. “And that’s OK. They’re just as married when they do this.”
“This” took about 20 minutes and featured some welcoming remarks from the judge followed by individual vows: One by one, each couple exited their row in the courtroom and stood before Toomer to be asked, “Do you so-and-so take so-and-so?” To every “yes” or “I do,” Toomer responded “Excellent!” or “That’s great!” in a sincerely warm tone of voice that also subtly managed to keep the line moving along.
The ceremony itself is free, although to take part, couples must have a valid Fulton County marriage license (that costs $56, or $16 with a certificate of completion of premarital education).
Some of the brides came clutching bouquets on this particular Friday, while several held sleeping babies in their arms. Some couples had circled the date on their calendar days or weeks ahead of time. Others arrived with the ink practically still wet on the marriage licenses they had just obtained from the main Probate Court office.
That only made it more special, insisted the former Daphne Emmon, whose elegant plum-colored blouse perfectly matched the hue of her new husband’s tie and pocket square. They’d never wanted a big wedding, she said; just a “proper” one so they could start living together as husband and wife.
“I would recommend doing it all in a day if [a couple] wants to and can,” she said, beaming up at Walter Jordan. “Because it helps drive home the message: That a wedding lasts for a day, but a marriage lasts for a lifetime.”