Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some Notes on Pennsylvania Marriage Law

There are two main questions I'm going to address in this blog entry. The first is, can ministers ordained online solemnize legal marriages in Pennsylvania, and the second is, can you get legally get married with a self-uniting license in Pennsylvania if you are not of the Quaker or Baha'i faith?

Can ministers ordained online solemnize legal marriages?

They can and they have in the state of Pennsylvania, although there is disagreement among the county courts concerning the legality of such marriages; no cases have gone before the state supreme court, and the state itself has not taken a clear stand on the issue. A woman in York County wanted to have her marriage annulled on the grounds that she and her husband were married by a Universal Life Church Monastery minister; the judge presiding over the case agreed that her marriage was invalid because Pennsylvania state law requires ministers to be "of any regularly established church or congregation," and he did not think a minister who did not conduct or attend services at a physical church and did not have a congregation met this requirement.

However, a couple in Bucks County, realizing this could set dangerous precedent for thousands of couples across the state, requested that the Bucks County court legally recognize the validity of their marriage, which had also been solemnized by a Universal Life Church Monastery member. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued their case before the court, and the Bucks County judge declared the marriage valid.

The crux of the ACLU's argument was that the court does not have the right to determine what legitimizes a minister; only the church with which a minister is affiliated can do that. Furthermore, the Universal Life Church Monastery is indeed a real church; it has a belief system and has tax-exempt status. The ACLU also made the point that limiting the definition of "church" to mean only a religious structure would bar all itinerant ministers from performing wedding ceremonies; Jesuit priests teaching at universities, retired ministers, and other itinerant pastors who now commonly solemnize marriages would not be allowed to do so.

The ACLU also sought to have a marriage that had been solemnized by an itinerant Universal Life Church Monastery minister in Montgomery County and a marriage that had been solemnized by an itinerant Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church minister in Philadelphia County validated. It was successful in both cases.

Unfortunately, since there is no definitive declaration on the matter by the state legislature or, as yet, the state supreme court, each county is allowed to decide the matter.

Can you get married with a self-uniting license if you are not a member of the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker) or of the Baha'i faith (or other faith without traditional established clergy)?

Yes, you absolutely can. However, some counties will not issue this license and others will ask for proof of membership in one of the above faith-based organizations before issuing this license. In 2007, a federal judge issued a restraining order preventing the Allegheny County register of wills from denying such a license to a couple unconnected with such a faith-based organization, and many counties have always granted the license with no questions asked. Although there has been no official ruling on the matter, precedent would seem to be in your favor should you choose to legally challenge counties engaging in discriminatory practices, but it is probably easier to pick your license up in a county that does not care about your religious affiliation. If you want to get this kind of license, be sure to ask for it at the very beginning of the application process; I don't know why, but that seems to be a common requirement.


The ACLU complaint filings -

An ACLU newsletter article (page 12) confirming the legal victories -

An article about the Bucks County case -

An article about the self-uniting license questioning challenge -

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