A Maryland couple had their dream wedding this month. The bride wore Vera Wang, the groom wore Tom Ford, they welcomed more than 2,500 guests -- and the bride presented her father with a "certificate of purity."
Boutique owner Brelyn Bowman (née Freeman) surprised her father at the reception of her wedding to gospel singer Tim Bowman Jr. with a document signed by a doctor stating she had kept her promise to remain abstinent before marriage. Their decision received a lot of attention on social media -- a lot of it unkind.
Brelyn Bowman, 22, said she told her father, Pastor Michael A. Freeman, when she was 13 that she would refrain from having sex. At her wedding, she said she wanted to show her dad and their loved ones that she had been faithful to their values.
"It's one thing to give your word. It's another to give proof," she said. "My whole message is embracing purity. It's all about how you honor yourself and your God."
Before the newlyweds flew off to their week-long honeymoon in Dubai and the Maldives, they posted wedding photos to their social media accounts. One photo shows Brelyn Bowman slow-dancing with her father. "I was able to present a certificate of purity to him signed by my doctor that my hymen was still intact," the caption says. Another photo shows the bride and her father holding the certificate and grinning.
When the Bowmans' plane touched down back home this week, they turned their phones back on and were stunned by a flood of hundreds of messages.
"We were sitting on the tarmac looking at our phones like 'What is this?!'" Tim Bowman, 28, said. Many of the messages called the virginity certificate "creepy" and sexist.
"At that moment, we had a brief meeting," Tim Bowman said. "We don't look at them like haters ... We made a decision that we were happy that people were even talking about it."
The Waldorf, Maryland couple decided they could use their own story to help lead others.
"The whole goal is to make Jesus famous and debunk the myth that living for Jesus is wack and unfulfilling," said Tim Bowman, whose song "I'm Good" is near the top of the Billboard gospel charts.
They both said staying abstinent was difficult.
"We're both attracted to each other, not only physically but emotionally, too," Brelyn Bowman said. They set boundaries like agreeing not to stay out past a certain time on some nights or doing activities with others instead of alone.
The bride called staying abstinent one of the best decisions she had ever made.
"If it's really a path in your life, no one will have to push you," she said.
Tim Bowman said criticism on social media of the virginity certificate had focused on his wife, but he said he thinks he feels more pressure from others on a day-to-day basis.
"It's kind of taboo for women nowadays to make that pledge that they want to stay pure," he said. "It's that times 10 for guys. You deal with that whole stereotype like you're wack or you're weak."
He asked friends and strangers to respect their decision.
"We can have a difference of opinions, but let's respect each others' opinions and talk about them," he said.
Michael A. Freeman, a fourth-generation pastor who founded Spirit of Faith Christian Center, said he never pressured Brelyn Bowman or his elder daughter, who gave him a similar purity certificate, to remain virgins.
"It's just a standard we decided we all wanted to uphold as a household," he said. "If she had violated that, it wouldn't have created any less love."
Medical exams that claim to check for virginity examine whether a woman's hymen is intact. The absence of the membrane or damage to it doesn't prove virginity because it can be damaged through regular activity like sports, and a girl can be born without a hymen, according to Planned Parenthood and the International Women's Health Coalition.
Still, the couple is urging other couples to consider abstinence.
"If I could get just one or two girls to say, 'Hey, I should wait,' then I know what I'm doing is encouraging," Brelyn Bowman said.
A blank copy of a "commitment contract" can be downloaded from their wedding website. The signee says she will "abstain from fornication (rubbing and petting) but I will keep myself until I am united in marriage to the young man that God is preparing for me." She also commits to avoid temptation and abstain from drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
Asked if the couple had remained abstinent after their wedding, Brelyn Bowman said no.
"Absolutely not," the bride said with a laugh.