I’ve been asked to officiate a wedding here in Pennsylvania. This led me down the rabbit hole, which I thought I’d document for my future use.
Since their views align with my own, I decided to become ordained through the Universal Life Church [ULC].
- Do only that which is right
- Every individual is free to practice their religion in the manner of their choosing, as mandated by the First Amendment, so long as that expression does not impinge upon the rights or freedoms of others and is in accordance with the government’s laws.
In my state of Pennsylvania, there are some concerns about the validity of a marriage officiated by a ULC minister.
Section 1503 of the Pennsylvania General Statutes lists Persons qualified to solemnize marriages, which includes Section 1503(a)(6)
A minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.
The legal dispute in Pennsylvania comes up based on the interpretation of “regularly established church or congregation”.
Heyer v. Hollerbush
Dorie Heyer and Jacob Hollerbush were married by a ULC Minister, who was ordained online. After one year of marriage they decided to divorce. Rather than go through divorce proceedings they argued that their marriage was invalid since it had been performed by an officiant who had been ordained online. They were successful and York County court ruled their marriage was never legal. This was based on the idea their minister did not have a “regularly established church or congregation”.
Heyer v. Hollerbush, Court of Common Pleas of York County, Pennsylvania No. 2007-SU-2132-Y08 (September 7, 2007)
In response to this ruling, news outlets carried stories about marriages that may not be valid and the Bucks County Register of Wills went so far as to hold a news conference and urged couples who might be affected to remarry as soon as possible.
In response three couples filed lawsuits, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, requesting the Court declare the validity of their marriages.
Hancock v. Hancock
Ryan Allen Hancock and Melanie Bilenker Hancock were married by a ULC Minister and asked asked the Court to declare the validity of their marriage. The Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas entered an order without opinion upholding the validity of a ULC minister-officiated marriage.
Hancock v. Hancock, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, No. 080201774 (November 13, 2008)
Goldberger v. Durbin
Peter Goldberger and Anna M. Durbin, were married by a Jesuit priest ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuit priest was an itinerant priest who had no congregation of his own and no assignment to any parish. Peter Goldberger and Anna M. Durbin asked the Court to declare the validity of their marriage. The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas entered an order without opinion declaring valid a marriage performed by an itinerant Jesuit minister who did not have his own assigned church or congregation.
This was an important ruling as it supported the idea that even though the minister did not have his own assigned church or congregation, he still meet the “regularly established church or congregation” requirement.
Goldberger v. Durbin, Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, No. 08-03984 (December 5, 2008)
O’Neill v. O’Neill
Jason O’Neill and Jennifer R. O’Neill were married by a ULC Minister and asked the Court to declare the validity of their marriage. The Bucks County Court of Common Pleas issued an opinion, on December 31, 2008, explaining its decision to uphold a ULC–officiated marriage. You can view this decision online at the O’Neill v. O’Neill Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, No. 2008-01620.
O’Neill v. O’Neill, Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, No. 2008-01620 (December 31, 2008)
In summary, the only time Pennsylvania courts have ruled a marriage presided over by a ULC ordained Minister to be invalid, was in a non-adversarial context where both parties (Heyer and Hollerbush) wanted the same outcome, for the marriage to be ruled void.
In the other two cases in Pennsylvania where a couple was married by a ULC Minister, the courts found their marriages were valid (Hancock v. Hancock and O’Neill v. O’Neill). In O’Neill v. O’Neill, Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. issued an official opinion explaining the decision to uphold a ULC-officiated marriage, which includes
For the reasons stated herein, we determine the Universal Life Church to be a regularly established church within the meaning of the Marriage Act. Mr. Norman, although not a clergyman in the traditional sense, is a minister of the ULC and is therefore qualified to solemnize a marriage in this Commonwealth. Accordingly, we find that the marriage between Jennifer and Jason O’Neill was lawfully solemnized. We hereby declare that a valid marriage exists between the parties and enter the attached Decree.
This is not legal advice, merely my summarization of the information I have read.
After all this information, if you’re not comfortable with having a ULC Minister officiate some other options are:
- Choose from one of the other many other people qualified to solemnize marriages according to Section 1503 of the Pennsylvania General Statutes
- Take your marriage license to a judge to become married in the eyes of the law while having your own ceremony for your friends and family
- Look into Pennsylvania’s self-uniting marriage license (see code 23 Pa. C.S.A. §1502) which provides for “marriage by religious ceremony without officiating clergy”. I’m unclear on the “religious ceremony” requirement and that is a rabbit hole for another day.
- University of Miami Law Review Vol. 64, Num 3 Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers April 2010
- PA. FAM. LAW., Oct. 2009, at 119, 120 I Now [Cannot] Pronounce You Man and Wife
- Heyer v. Hollerbush, Court of Common Pleas of York County, Pennsylvania No. 2007-SU-2132-Y08 (September 7, 2007)
- Hancock v. Hancock, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, No. 080201774 (November 13, 2008)
- Goldberger v. Durbin, Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, No. 08-03984 (December 5, 2008)
- O’Neill v. O’Neill, Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, No. 2008-01620 (December 31, 2008)