My Marriage Not Valid
By CHRISTINA KRISTOFIC
County officials have been warning couples for years to be careful selecting someone to marry them.
State law dictates that the only people allowed to officiate at weddings are judges, retired judges, district judges, mayors, and ministers, priests or rabbis with an established church or congregation that meets regularly.
A ruling issued last week by a York County Court of Common Pleas judge reinforces the rules as they relate to clergy, and says weddings conducted by Internet-ordained ministers are not valid unless those ministers have a “regularly established church or congregation.”
“This is a serious situation,” said Bucks County Register of Wills Barbara Reilly. “Because of this decision, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of couples out there that think they’re married and may very well not be.”
Reilly and Montgomery County Deputy Register of Wills Joanna Rosetti each estimated that their departments issue about 5,000 marriage licenses a year. Neither could say exactly how many of those marriages were performed by Internet-ordained ministers.
Reilly’s staff provided marriage records for seven couples married since the end of June by Universal Life Church ministers — the most common Internet-ordained group.
None of those couples could be reached by phone Friday.
One minister, Cheyenne R. Mease of Springfield, Bucks County, said she considered going into the ministry for years and got ordained by the Universal Life Church because she ascribes to its philosophy of supporting freedom of religion and doing the right thing.
Mease said “a number” of people have asked her to marry them, usually because they don’t subscribe to an organized church but want a spiritual element in their wedding ceremony.
“To be able to help someone when they’re getting married is a wonderful thing to do,” she said.
Mease isn’t sure if she’s authorized under state law to perform marriages.
“I don’t have a sign with a cross in my front yard,” she said. “But I do have a following that meets regularly to discuss spiritual topics.”
Mease said she wouldn’t call the group a “congregation” because that would make it organized religion. She does, however, keep records of their meetings.
The couples Mease marries understand the situation before she performs the services, Mease said. She hopes their marriages would hold up to legal scrutiny.
Internet ordination has become more prevalent over the last five years, Reilly said.
And many Web sites offer the service at the click of a mouse — for a small fee or for free.
A Google search for “online ordination” provided links to the Universal Life Church Monastery in Seattle; the Universal Life Church Seminary in Modesto, Calif.; World Christianship Ministries with a post office box in Fresno, Calif.; Rose Ministries in Las Vegas; The Love Church, with a Nextel phone in Lake Placid, Fla.; The Church of the Latter-day Dude, which appears to honor “The Big Lebowski”; and The Jedi Church in New Zealand, which appears to be a group of “Star Wars” fans.
The search also provided a link to The Church of Spiritual Humanism, which has a post office box in Jenkintown and a Seattle phone number. A voicemail message left with the church was not immediately returned.
Reilly said some other ministers without churches or congregations come from the Division of Humanists, The Church of the Wineskins and little wedding chapels in big cities.
And there may be many more.
There is no official registry for clergy in Pennsylvania.
Reilly said her office has issued marriage licenses to individuals married in Wiccan or pagan ceremonies, and those are valid as long as the officiant has an established church or congregation.
Some couples might not find out if their marriages were performed by authorized officials until a critical moment in their marriage.
The York County case came about when a young couple decided to divorce after seven months of marriage.
Jacob T. Hollerbush, 24, and Dorie E. Heyer, 21, were married in August 2006 by a friend who had been ordained by the Universal Life Church. When they decided to split up, they wondered whether their marriage was even valid under state law. A York judge determined that it wasn’t because the friend didn’t have a church or congregation.
David Cleaver, solicitor for the state Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court, said the case is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, and his organization is advising members not to file such marriages.
G. Martin Freeman, Universal Life Church Monastery president, said he hopes to challenge the ruling.
Freeman said the decision to accept some ministers but not others was arbitrary and would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
Whether his appeal would be successful remains to be seen.
Similar decisions have been made — and upheld on appeal — in New York, North Carolina and Virginia.
Couples married by Internet-ordained ministers could find out their marriages aren’t valid when it comes time to collect life insurance, pension or Social Security payments.
And since common law marriage was abolished Jan. 1, 2005, in Pennsylvania, couples married after that date can’t even claim their marriage is valid on that basis.
“We’re faced with a whole new set of rules here,” Reilly said.
It’s each couple’s responsibility to make sure they’re following the rules.
Couples who question whether their marriages are valid should contact the person who conducted the service to check their credentials. If the credentials are questionable, the couples will have to have their marriages declared void by a judge so they can be removed from county records — regardless of whether they want to remain married.
Couples who want to stay together have to apply for a new marriage license, pay the application fee and have a new ceremony with a new officiant.
The Pennsylvania House is considering legislation that would exclude churches or congregations that offer ordinations by mail or through electronic means.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Can anyone explain why filing for a marriage license, paying the fee, and exchanging vows in front of witnesses in a ceremony performed by a person who's been empowered by the state isn't good enough to constitute a legal marriage?
We were married by a close friend (who'll also be legal guardian to our daughter) who was ordained through this ministry. He called the Register of Wills that issued our license prior to the wedding to make sure he was in good standing to marry us.
This ruling invalidates my marriage as well that those of many couples I know.
I'm so unbelievably livid that I'm apparently going to have to go through the hassle of getting my signed, filed liscense invalidated and having to pay for another liscense and a visit to the JOP.
Last edited by Guest; 09-17-2007 at 10:28 AM..